In an era that seems to be increasingly defined by disagreement and conflict everywhere you turn, I intentionally begin this article with two comments on leadership that have a shot at receiving universal acceptance:
Leadership Is Synonymous With Influence
When you have influenced another person or group to do something they might not have done otherwise, you have engaged in leadership. Regardless of whether your efforts were intentional or inadvertent, if you have successfully influenced the behavior of others, you are a leader.
Leadership Is Multidirectional
Neither who you are, where you come from or where you are positioned in your organization’s structure is an inherent limitation to your ability to effectively lead, because leadership is multidirectional. You have the potential to successfully influence your peers, your boss or your direct reports, regardless of your relative position.
There are other things about leadership that most of us would probably agree upon as well. For example, there is no such thing as a “best leadership style.” Each of the approaches we have heard so much about over the years (e.g., empowerment, collaboration and direction) works, but each of those approaches also does not work. Typically, its success depends on the task or objective that is the focus of your leadership attention, the individual or team you are trying to influence to complete that task, and the power you have at your disposal to effectively execute your leadership approach.
Power and leadership are the opposite sides of the same coin. Leadership is an attempt to influence, and power is influence potential. It’s not unlike the relationship between a remote control and its batteries. You can stand in front of a TV pressing your remote control all night long and never change the channel if the batteries are out of juice. Similarly, you can employ any three leadership style as often or as diligently as you want to, but if you don’t have the power to fuel your approach, attempts to effectively influence will inevitably fall short of the mark.
In an organizational context, power exists in three, highly interdependent forms:
Legitimate power is a function of where you sit: To whom do you report? Who reports to you? Who are your peers? What are the parameters, expectations and limits of your formal decision-making authority?
This type of power boils down to your formally sanctioned ability to hold others accountable, recognize their performance or connect them with others outside their established chain of command.
Referent power is a function of trust and credibility. By its nature, it is not something you can command of others but, rather, something you earn on a case-by-case basis over time. It is, without question, the most important source of influence potential a leader can have, and it is also the most volatile, as it is dependent on the way the people you aspire to lead feel about you.
Expert power is the relative extent to which you have “been there and done that.” Think about the normal distribution curve. If the area under the curve is populated by all the people who do the same thing you do, your position on that curve is dictated by your comparative knowledge and documented skill (as determined by an objective analysis). Importantly, in a world where we have access to unlimited information, experts tell others which information to pay attention to and which information to ignore.
It is probably safe to say that if it weren’t for change, people would care a lot less about leadership and power. In the context of performance management, when change hits, readiness to perform shifts. Employees with high levels of ability and willingness to carry out key tasks under existing circumstances can experience an impact in both as the implications of the change become reality. Change can render previous experience and skill sets obsolete. What mattered yesterday is of far less consequence that what is required now.
Most of us resist change, because we worked hard to become good at what we do, and we do not want to start over and climb that hill again. The nature of our resistance might be driven by fluctuating commitment or motivation (“I sure as heck did not sign up for this!”) or our confidence (“Truth be told, I am not sure I can ever master this new way of doing things”).
It is by no means a typical example (even for change categorized as “disruptive”), but consider what most of us have been up against these past months as COVID-19 invaded and engulfed our work routines. Here are two representative situations and an overview of how a leader could leverage power to effectively influence in response to change:
Situation 1: A member of your team has rarely, if ever, worked from home. Young kids and a house too small for his growing family precluded it. But now, he must. You have your first virtual meeting with this employee (ostensibly set up as a normal one-on-one update on the projects for which he is responsible).
Your Response: When the meeting starts, forget the projects, and make the entire focus of the call an exercise in demonstrating awareness and displaying empathy. Leverage referent power if you have it (and if you do not, now is a great time to earn some). Ask highly collaborative, participative questions with significant degrees of freedom (i.e., “Tell me how things are going for you and your family”), and then genuinely listen to and have compassion for him.
Situation 2: A tenured employee who has reported to you for some time and has proven to be a top performer has confided to you, “Things are so messed up that I have no idea what to do.” She is asking you questions about the future of her projects, for clarity regarding rumors of layoffs and (uncharacteristically) for a prioritized list of tasks she should complete.
Your Response: In times of disruptive change, it is natural for people, even the highest of performers, to seek both guidance and direction, fueled by legitimate and/or expert power. The worst thing you could do in these circumstances is to fabricate information and “manage the moment” by trying to remove all risk or discomfort. The next worst thing you could do is continue empowering (“Just use your best judgment!”) or participating (“What do you feel your priorities should be?”) Tell the employee what you know, what she should be doing (in sequence of urgency), how she should be doing it and when she should finish it. Also “stay close” in an effort to reinforce progress or readjust the plan.
Power (influence potential) is something leaders should be dedicated to earning and judicious in using. Leadership (attempts to influence) should be governed by circumstance and customized or personalized based on the variables of each unique situation. Finally, change is the inevitable dynamic that brings power and leadership together.