Power and politics are among the most difficult dynamics to understand, yet they define much of the operations, culture and ultimately performance of an organization.
A dominant, if politically incorrect, proverb that moves insidiously through many organizations states that ‘success has many parents, while failure is an orphan’. Take a moment to imagine the internal dynamics at work that would make this proverb an operational reality. It requires scores of people positioning themselves in such a way as to be able to claim some degree of credit for a successful outcome, while simultaneously being able to quickly take their hands off of a pending failure.
It’s not hard to see how this culture of behaviour would erode trust, encourage cliques and undermine integrity.
A primary issue is that many of us still have an immature understanding and relationship to power. There is a common assumption that only unilateral power is of any consequence within organizations.
Unilateral power is essentially survival of the fittest in which people’s interests are subordinated to a dominant leader.
Two recent popular books have reinforced the assumption that unilateral power alone matters.
Richard Greene’s 48 Laws of Power essentially marries Machiavelli’s The Prince with the ancient Chinese classic The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Written in a unique style with compelling anecdotes, Greene comprehensively translates the essence of unilateral power with laws like Conceal Your Intentions and Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy.
Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer released his book simply entitled Power this year and while it’s more pragmatic and nuanced and less pernicious than Greene’s book, it doesn’t deviate far from researched advice that Image Creates Reality or recommendations to apply strategic outbursts of anger.
Both books seem still to assume a similar landscape that Thomas Hobbes famously described as ‘nasty, brutish and short.’
But in complex, changing times, no one approach or understanding will suffice to provide the kind of transformation many organizations need in order to thrive and unilateral power is no longer the only or best way to manage people and compel results.
The research of author Bill Torbert in his book The Power of Balance differentiates at least four types of power operating within organizations.
Beyond unilateral power, there is also diplomatic power, which represents the power of consent. A leader skilled in diplomatic power can tap the needs and wants of people and deliver results democratically, without coercion. The third, logistical power, asserts that people will consent to what is fair and rational. The emphasis here is on justice, merit and logic.
The fourth type is transforming power. It’s this capacity that leaders must leverage if wholesale change is to be successful. Such a leader seeks to challenge his or her own approach by taking on issues of increasing complexity or social scope, or those that go more deeply to the heart of a culture itself.
This is not to say other forms of power aren’t still relevant. They are. Start-up organizations still benefit from properly exercised unilateral power, for example. Often the industry or the maturity of the organization will determine what type of power suits the situation at hand. What is most troubling though is not just how few leaders can exercise transforming power, but how few people genuinely understand it.
My high school Principal was quiet and unassuming, exactly opposite of the common stereotype, yet my school was legendary for its innovative events, fundraisers and spirit-building activities, generally led by any number of faculty or student body. Years later when I worked for him as a teacher, I asked him who came up with these ideas and was stunned to find how many came from him. Part of his genius was in putting an idea out and steering it towards success without over handling it. And yet, if an idea failed, he was there to cushion the blow by absorbing responsibility.
This anecdote demonstrates a much more inspirational proverb from Chinese antiquity that captures the essence of transforming leadership and is increasingly relevant for adaptation to changing environments:
‘A leader is best when people barely knows he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves’.