Source: MIT Sloan Management Review

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Reflections on Leadership and the Nature of Power

“Men are made powerful far less by the grace of their own talents than by the trust that others place in them.”

Leadership is a quaint, enigmatic concept, heavy with connotations and yet poorly understood, even among those who lay claim to the traits that comprise it. Our pre-eminent academic institutions and employers demand it. They constantly work to develop it in the individuals they recruit, and to demonstrate it regularly, individually and institutionally. And yet, few truly perceive it for what it really is. To most, leadership is indistinguishable from wealth, status and power. To some extent, it has become inextricable from these satellites in its orbit and yet it deserves its own hallowed distinction.

At its heart, leadership is rooted in power — the capacity to execute some action to deliver a determinate outcome — which in turn draws from the twin rivers of authority and influence. In deploying authority, we exercise power over people, events and objects of which we have direct control, and in exerting influence, we exercise power over people, events and objects of which we do not have direct control. Power can be wielded both offensively and defensively, proactively and reactively — either to bring about desirable outcomes or to prevent or forestall undesirable ones.

Power as an abstraction is interesting because it cannot be decoupled or understood independently of its outcomes: they are complementary variables, after a fashion. Descriptions and perceptions of power and/or the powerful are always accompanied by a description or imagining of the impact that power does or might have. In essence — power cannot exist in a vacuum. If it is not being actively wielded, then it is being passively wielded — simply because others, whether they be individuals or institutions, recognize its existence and adjust their behavior accordingly.

In this way, power becomes closely interlinked with the idea of liberty and it becomes clear that the more power one accrues, the greater liberty they have to control their affairs as they see fit and, in many cases, direct the affairs of others. If we hold this to be true, then it also becomes incumbent upon us as individuals and societies to closely monitor the ways in which power is wielded and the ends to which it is exercised. Because power has impact simply by virtue of existing, individuals and institutions alike have a social responsibility to ensure that it used to promote the public good (e.g. delivering justice, establishing equity, creating opportunity and prosperity), and preventing harm (e.g. protecting the disadvantaged, ensuring public safety, guarding against famine and disease).

We also have a public interest in setting boundaries to avoid the accumulation of power to particular nodes in the socio-political graph. Facilitating the survival and flourishing of a society is a delicate balancing act and if particular individuals, institutions accumulate too much power — which they are generally incentivized to wield towards selfish ends — we invite disaster as this phenomenon begins to bend the social fabric as we are seeing across the globe today, even in the most advanced economies. This structural imbalance, allowed to reach its natural conclusion, will lead to chaos and, in the most extreme scenario: institutional collapse.

Thus the diffusion of power throughout a society becomes imperative. In our context, this manifests as a direct participatory democracy. However, systems often have different operating requirements at scale and so power needs to be devolved and entrusted to a reasonable, qualified subset of the population. This gives us our current system of representative democracy that characterizes the governments of many liberal states around the world. However, in the same vein, these systems are inherently entropic and tend towards disorder due to misaligned incentives between the public and private good. This opens the system up to the corrupting forces of greed and gluttony, allowing those entrusted with power to abuse it for their own ends and to further their private interests and those of their allies.

This is where the need for adequately equipped leaders, operating within a well-defined and consensus-driven ethical framework, arises.

The sources of power — authority and influence — are characterized by multiple traits, and can be either inherent, borrowed or acquired. They spring from both the tangible and the intangible — information, titles, wealth, location, physical strength, public opinion, reputation, divine revelation, and so on and so forth. Without at least some measure of either authority or influence, and consequently, the possession of power, it is difficult to assume true leadership. This is because leadership presupposes that:

  • There are other people or organizations to follow leaders along whatever journey they have chosen to embark on
  • That there is a final destination, or determinate outcome to which these followers are ultimately being led
  • The exercise of power is conducted with the purpose of orchestrating a particular set of outcomes that would not otherwise naturally occur

In this way, as with the relationship between the physical quantities of distance and displacement, or speed and velocity, power and leadership can be considered two sides of the same coin — codependent, yet distinct. This allows for a more fulsome definition of leadership: the marshalling of power to produce desirable outcomes.

Organizations are usually set up as the vehicles by which leaders realize their visions and execute on the missions they have articulated and sold to others as a worthy pursuit, and which may, as a consequence, create wealth, bestow status and accrue further power unto themselves. In this vein, we see that leadership is a quality not unique to individuals, but may also characterize institutions — be they governments, corporations or otherwise. There is a dual-track system of power distribution in which each of its constituent parts may be closely entangled — each drawing legitimacy from the other.

Having had the opportunity to study great contemporary leaders, to work with those I consider to be exemplary leaders and to, on occasion, assume minor leadership roles myself, I’ve observed that, over and above the myriad leadership styles and profiles that populate self-help literature and pop psychology, there are, when reduced to first principles, four fundamental aspects of leadership:

  • Structural Leadership — (articulating the vision, defining the mission & strategy, identifying and recruiting the right talent to execute)
  • Process Leadership — (driving performance, satisfying clientele, getting results, growing the business, minimizing costs, scaling sustainably)
  • Cultural Leadership — (promoting values, leading by example, setting the tone, giving back to the community)
  • Content Leadership — (distilling expertise and experience for the benefit of employees, clients, establishing a leadership of ideas in a particular domain)

Together, these elements form what I like to think of as the “leadership diamond”, a useful tool by which we might evaluate leaders along the relevant dimensions. It will be exceedingly rare to find a leader who embodies fully and naturally all the qualities and talents that I have mentioned (and those I have not mentioned), but, if, collectively, these attributes and capabilities are distributed amongst the leadership of an organization, then it will be well positioned for both success and sustainability.

This has important implications for management education and leadership development programmes, which often place too much emphasis on the individual, purporting to transform everyone into the same type of leader, rather than accounting for institutional needs and the various pathways that can produce true leaders.

In the end, leadership is a verb and not a noun, it describes an action, not a person and it is an action that requires sacrifice and humility. Rather than lionizing and promoting our most leaders by virtue of their wealth or status, let us do so for their ability to actually lead.

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