Once upon a time, when I did stand-up leadership development, I would start leadership courses with a simple question: “Do you think your ability to lead has any impact on the ability of your employees to be successful in their roles?” Of course, the answer was always yes. Often, the training participants were new leaders who were eager and proud of their new positions and gravitated to the power they sensed in that question.
I always followed up with, “Then you must also agree that your ability to lead also impacts your employees’ ability to feed their children, pay their mortgage and buy clothes for their family.” That follow-up was often met with an uncomfortable silence as the gravity of what they were engaging in hit home.
Leaders have enormous power. They can disengage people, diminish people, set up people for failure, demean them, demote them and fire them. As a leader, you have the ability to break people and ruin lives. And not just their lives but the lives of their family members, too.
And so, I would follow my introduction with the admonition that when you wield so much power over people, you must be careful with it and have the correct motivations. You must take this leadership stuff seriously. If you are in the business of leadership for power, or money or ego, then you should probably not be in this business. The stakes are too high.
When choosing leaders, we must be mindful of the same dynamics. Don’t promote the greedy, the egotistical, the power-hungry or the political. Instead, promote people who are motivated to accomplish big goals and committed to leading people and organizations to a better place. This kind of talk is the pithy stuff people in organizational development talk about all the time but that is also entirely true. And yet, organizations often do not consider and weigh the motivations of the people they promote to leadership roles or, indeed, to their own motivations.
On the flip side, the power that leaders hold over others can also be a force for great good. I was once a part of a program to develop mechanics for leadership roles. It was a successful experiment that I was quite proud of. After the program had been up and running for a while, a new graduate came to see me. He was a gruff, fire hydrant of a man — a guy who had worked (and I mean, worked) with his hands turning wrenches for two decades. He wanted to express his thanks to me that he had been selected for the program. He never thought he’d be a supervisor, since he had no education or experience. With tears in his eyes, this tough man told me that because of his raise, he was now able to afford help for his child with special needs.
That is the flip side of the power of leadership: the power to do great good in the world. Not only in accomplishing the goals of your organization but also in helping others accomplish theirs.