Power is the failure of leadership – and we need to call it out

Posted: 15th February 2018

Here’s a conundrum: if being a leader makes you powerful, does being powerful make you a leader?

Given the way that many of us approach authority, our organisations and working lives, you’d think that it was a simple equation, but the truth is that while leadership=power the inverse is not true: power≠leadership.

Most of us recognise this in the abstract sense, but when it comes to our day-to-day lives we fall into the trap of equating the two, with predictably bad consequences.

“Power is the centralisation of direction”

First of all, let’s be clear why the two are different. Googling “definition of leadership” will turn up more hits than you can deal with, but most will focus on building consensus, creating a vision for others to follow, inspiring and engaging action in those around you and many more articulations that focus on creating a collective and empowered sense of action and direction.

Power, on the other hand, is about the centralisation of direction – removing responsibility from the group to engage and simply perform; not seeking to build buy-in and consent but only acquiescence; having the voice of one drown out the voices of the many.

From a senior position, it can be easy to be confused by the two – after all, the results might look the same. Whether a task gets done through the exercise of power or leadership may seem immaterial if you are only focused on the outcome.

“Long-term sustainable success can never lie in the manipulation of power”

But let’s be clear, only one of these two will make the outcomes last.

  • Power will drive people into negotiations because of the fear of consequence, leadership will bring people together to explore benefit.
  • Power will implement a strategy because it is the only option, leadership will implement a strategy because it is the best option.
  • Power will see goals achieved because they have to be successful, leadership will see goals achieved because people want to succeed.

Only one of these approaches, leadership not power, will see outcomes outlast the tenure of the central personality. Long-term sustainable success can never lie in the manipulation of power. By its very nature, the mechanisms it uses are short-term and short-sighted, it even carries the seeds of its own destruction as those who are subjected to the use of power will more quickly seek to overturn its products and dismantle what has been achieved when the power dynamic changes.

Power has no authority to act, as it only has its own strength to draw on; leadership has authority drawn from the consent of those around it, creating a lasting strength that can be continually renewed.

So why is that we are so ready to cede authority to powerful people in the mistaken belief that they are leaders? There are many examples around us, whether in political, business or academic worlds, and most of us can see some place in our lives where we have knelt to someone not because we thought they were right, but because they claimed to be stronger than us.

Three ways we get it wrong:

  • Thinking that leadership is hierarchical

Leaders at the top, followers at the bottom? That’s the trap that the organisation charts we map in our heads set for us when we map out authority, regardless of how many articles we read on dispersed leadership. When we are predisposed to thinking that leaders sit at the top of the pyramid, we start to imbue these qualities in individuals, simply because of their seat. We don’t question how they got there or how they exercise their authority, we just assume the hierarchy makes them a leader.

  • Not recognising the tipping point from leadership to power

History is littered with individuals who have fallen from positions of leadership into positions of power. Twentieth century political leadership is full of people who were great leaders who nobody started questioning when they stopped leading and just used power – the momentum of their past, legend and achievements carried them forward into an unquestioned future.

  • Assuming success is bred by leadership

The narrative that success is down to leadership permeates everything. How many meetings have we been in when a success has been credited to the expert leadership of an individual while everyone around the table knows that wasn’t the major factor? Luck, sweat and coincidence rarely get the acknowledgement they deserve, while leadership can be over emphasised, and often misrepresented – how often has it actually been power that has been in play?

“Power is a tool that leaders can use, but only sparingly”

Just to be clear – power is a tool that leaders can use, but only sparingly. Every time “Because I said so” is used it is stored by those who hear it to discredit, little by little, a more empowering leader-led approach.

Of course, bending to power may not be a choice that we have – power may well be able to create consequence which means we follow it in full knowledge of its failings. But this carries its own betrayal: if power is the only tool being used, it means it has no argument to present; it is ultimately hollow and will inevitably be overcome when the wind changes. #MeToo and the Arab Spring are just two examples that show that power without authority cannot last.

Counterintuitively, it is when individuals are behaving in obviously “powerful” ways that we should be challenging them the most. Often society sees the characteristics which present themselves as powerful as signs of strength, but in reality, they are more likely to represent isolation, disconnection and weakness as they resort to power as they cannot build consensus, engaged action and communal strength.

As we look to succeed as either leaders or followers, we have a responsibility to hold authority to account and ensure that the way it is exercised is positive and sustainable, that it is engaged and engaging, and that it is for today and the future.

Follow leaders, disrupt the powerful.