If there is one particular aspect of leadership that is more difficult to grasp than all others, it could well be power. A recent workshop by Sonsoles Alonso focused on Power in Leadership and provided some valuable insights into an area that many leaders struggle with. Power is at the core of leadership but it can be a real challenge to get it right.

But why is power something that many find so difficult to handle? Well, the famous words of 19th century British politician Lord Acton spring to mind: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is certainly true that in a variety of situations – both inside and outside the workplace – power often tends to go to people’s heads. It’s a simple truth that we are not generally trained to handle power well.

Julie Diamond  was one of the first to study the various power struggles that we see all around us. Her book Power: A User’s Guide explores how, although power may corrupt, using it to good effect is in our grasp. She looks at how it is not inevitable that power should take a negative course.

During the Power in Leadership workshop, Sonsoles Alonso talked about the various types of power that exist. Those that are well liked and respected can yield influential power. Formal power, on the other hand, is often exercised by way of either a threat or a reward. But, while power can be both internal and external, its use begins with awareness.

Psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five types of power in the 1950s. Legitimate Power is perhaps the most obvious – where an individual in a higher position has control of those of a lower status in an organisation’s hierarchy. As Sonsoles Alonso explained, position in itself does not give you power. To really have power, you must first earn the trust of those you lead.

Leaders must command respect, not because of the position they hold but because others believe that they deserve to be in that position. A leader should then be able to exert their legitimate power

Alonso also covered the important question: Why does power corrupt some people, but not all? She believes that power becomes corrupt when motive, means and opportunity come together. However, motive is the only one of these factors that we personally have control over. Feelings of weakness and insecurity are often the underlying reasons why people abuse the power they have.

Leaders should always be mindful of how they are projecting themselves onto others. Using coercive power of threats and force will never win respect, loyalty or credibility.

Real power is the capacity to influence the environment you are in. This can come from the expert knowledge an individual possesses or from their experience. But to maintain influence leaders must strive to continue learning and improving at what they do.

Power is potentially in the hands of everyone. When abused, power has a destructive effect. When used effectively, power can have a real impact and help organisations to work through all types of difference and conflict.

We’d love to hear any questions you might have!


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