Okay – Bevan ended up twisting my arm and as must as this wasn’t going to be the next topic it did get me thinking about the concept. So let’s start off with a little challenge that Crap Mariner does which is called a drabble – a 100 word story – although truth be told I don’t exactly think on this as being a drabble but more of a rant. None the less here goes:
Power is the fulcrum between free-will and free-action. The closer one draws the will of others the more extreme the actions of those whose will cannot be bartered and vice-versa. Sustained use of any one type of power, be it coercive, expert, reward, referent, or positional, cannot be maintained indefinitely without consequences. Equilibrium must always be maintained applying the lease amount of pressure to steady the beam in achieving those aims which are to everyone’s benefit. To do otherwise means small differences will require extraordinary effort to maintain control. If history teaches us nothing else, let it be this.
And of course me being me I can’t leave well enough alone to just leave it there. So the rest of this article is about this idea of power within corporate cultures.
Depending on how you want to define it there are multiple types of power that exist with any type of a culture. The standard five (5) are coercive, referent, reward, expert, and legitimate (positional). You can argue over other types as well including connection power and informational power but these are essentially the big five.
Power however is also a balancing act between competitive interests. Sometimes these interests are co-operative while other times they are mutually exclusive. At a minimum however there are always three points of view that are required in order to develop a power base. Those are:
1) freedom of will (i.e. thoughts and narratives)
2) freedom of action (i.e. movement, association, working conditions)
3) freedom of assessment (i.e. where the fulcrum goes between will and action)
Politics is the ability to influence movement in one of these three areas. Power is the capital that you have at your disposal to wield influence. Part of that influence however is basically knowing where to “put the x” for the fulcrum before negotiating the politics of a given situation.
Let me put this another way. If you start trying to resolve a employee-management issue by immediately wielding coercive power and control the assessment process by which the problem will be resolved, you shouldn’t really be surprised if your employee base makes a bee-line for the farthest position they can take while still being part of the game. Least you risk them not playing in the sandbox at all.
Good leaders always try to do two things: 1) find a position for the fulcrum that gives them the greatest latitude in wielding their power capital, and 2) only use that power to influence movement towards or away from the fulcrum rather than attempting to impose a forced march.
History is replete with examples of leaders who, upon imposing their will on a situation, achieved the exact opposite results. While this may be a demonstration of the application of power, it is not power in of itself. Which brings me to my next point.
Power begets power.
Like any form of capital, the purpose of using power is to gain more power. It is like a bank account. You need to be constantly making small incremental deposits so that when you need it, you can make a withdrawal without worrying about the next crisis that comes up. If you over draw the account too many times, then your power position eventually falls short when you need it (e.g. the boy that cried wolf).
Good leaders know the difference between short term gains, and long term investments. For those that play the power game, you essentially need to treat every situation as a net zero proposition. That is, for every situation that can be resolved to the best interest of all parties concerned without consideration of the agenda of the person at the center, their power position will by default increase even if there is no immediate net benefit to that person.
There are limits however. Too many zero-sum opportunities and you can find yourself being taken advantage of which is detrimental over time. The trick is to know when to use your power capital and when to hold it in reserve. Not playing the game is also a key strategy that can beget more power when properly employed.
To carry the see-saw metaphor one step further, good leadership is about only using as much power as you need to in order to mitigate a specific situation. Putting all your weight on one end of the scale or the other means that small changes by the other side will result in big changes on your end (not necessarily for the better).
Another way to think on it is this. Force equals mass times acceleration. If you are spending all your time weighing down one side or having people march to a tune they would rather not, then there will be very little in the tank when you need to switch direction or react to changing conditions. By maintaining an equilibrium that is sustained by everyone else involved in the situation, other than the leader, this leaves the leader free to act when needed to rebalance the scales.
Of course it also depends on how out of balance the system is in the first place. Big sweeping organizational changes require a lot of time and energy from those in power positions in order to re-establish an equilibrium. However once established, the best way to tell if leadership has done its job properly is to just leave it alone and see where it settles. Good leadership and organizational change will lead to sustainable processes that do not need a lot of politics and power capital in order to maintain.
And that is probably the best indicator of your power and influence – the minimal extent by which you need to use such power to get the best out of others.
— Kevin Feenan