The challenge of power: collide or collude?

power and authorityIt’s almost impossible not to be aware of the questions being asked by the media at the moment concerning the behaviour of Jimmy Savile. We wonder why those in a position to do so didn’t challenge him. I am reminded again of the issue of the interaction of power and responsibility. There are many manifestations of power: it may come from celebrity status; physical strength; force of personality; authority associated with leadership. Power is a gift from those who accord it to us; we should use it wisely and judiciously for their benefit.

Whether we like it or not, however quietly we lead, as successful leaders, we are in a position of power. Sit round a board room table, have the chair express his or her opinion first, and in most cases, others will fall into line. A throw-away comment is given the status of policy, because it’s uttered by a leader. As leaders, one of our roles is to influence others. How do we maintain the balance between influencing others, and allowing them to influence us?

The difficulty is that as you climb the leadership ladder, others are less and less inclined to challenge you. And yet if they don’t, you are in danger (albeit unwittingly) of suffering from wilful blindness – described by Margaret Heffernan in her book as seeing and hearing only those things that accord with your view of the world. You may welcome robust debate, but if it always ends in you behaving in exactly the way you intended before the debate started, in time people will save their breath and stop challenging you.

I spend much of my time working with headteachers. Without exception, every one I have met took on the role because they want to make a positive difference to the lives of young people. They are ethical, driven by a strong moral purpose. I have also worked with senior leaders who are not yet headteachers; occasionally they tell me that they are managing a very difficult balancing act between their headteacher and the rest of the staff. ‘S/he upsets them’ I’m told; ‘S/he doesn’t listen’; ‘the staff are really demotivated by her/his bullying behaviour’ … etc. Generally, my response is to ask whether – when they reach headship – they would want to know if that’s how staff are feeling. ‘Of course’ they reply earnestly. ‘I’d hate to feel that people think I’m like that’ . ‘So who’s role is it to share that information with the head?’ I ask. Sometimes, they decide they will have that difficult conversation, because they believe it’s in the best interests of the school. Sometimes they tell me that they’ve tried, or that they don’t feel it would be productive, occasionally adding ‘I’m going to need a reference one day’. Every senior leader I work with who is in that position is determined that they won’t lose touch with what’s going on in their school. Sometimes, however, they do.

listening2Something happens in and around leadership that sets leaders apart. Your followers will invest in you all sorts of motivations and responses which may be completely inaccurate as far as you’re concerned. But If it’s what they believe, it will affect how they behave. Whether you will be angry when someone tells you there was an error in the financial spreadsheet, matters not one iota. It’s how they imagine you will react that matters. Whether you smile and say ‘thanks for sharing that with me’ in response to someone telling you that most of the staff are afraid of you, or say defensively ‘that’s ridiculous: how can they possibly be afraid of me?’ is less important than how they think you’ll react. As a leader, you live not only your own reality, you live in the shadow of everyone else’s, too.
As leaders we may remain prepared to listen to others’ inconvenient truths – but how can we ensure that they will be ready to share them? What’s the key to creating a climate of trust, where you can rely on others to be honest and share what might feel like criticism? Here – in no particular order -are just a few pointers which others have found useful:

  1. When you arrive, set out your stall: tell people you want to make a success of the role, and you need their help to do so. You can’t do anything about things that aren’t working unless you know about them. Invite everyone to tell you (personally or in writing) two things that they feel positive about in the organisation, and one thing they’d like to change. Pick up the trends and feed back on them. Acknowledge the trends and the isolated comments, so that people feel heard. Keep listening.
  2. Know who your allies are at every level. They are not necessarily the people who tell you how wonderful everything is; they are those who are brave and skilled enough to share the good and the bad in a way that can be heard. Trust your instincts: that’s why you were given them, but know what’s driving them, too. The person who seems to want to undermine your authority may actually have a point. If you think someone might not be trustworthy, be cautious in your dealings with them, until you have evidence to back up or challenge your first impression. Keep listening.
  3. Listen to all feedback, even if you think it comes from those with a personal hidden agenda. In time you will get to know how much credence to invest in each comment, but all feedback is worthy of consideration. If you’re in a position to do a complete evaluation of the workforce perspective (such as through using the Barrett Values Centre’s cultural transformation tools) so much the better. Or undertake a 360 assessment, which will at least tell you what your workforce think about your behaviour. Keep listening – and reflect on what you hear.
  4. Remember that your predecessor was only human, even if memories expressed by others suggest otherwise. Allow people to mourn the loss of your predecessor; find a way to acknowledge his/her contribution, and state how you will build on it. Keep listening, reflect on what you hear and consider how it connects with what you already know.
  5. Trust yourself and be open to the thought that you may be wrong. Don’t look only for evidence which confirms that you are right. Be alert to contra-evidence. If things seem too good to be true, they probably are. Keep listening, reflect on what you hear, consider how it connects with what you already know and what action you might take as a result.
  6. Keep a sense of proportion. Leaders can often pick up the projections of others. If your workforce want you to be a super-hero, it’s tempting to buy into the pact. If the economic climate is bleak and times are tough, it’s easy to take out anger and frustration on the leader. Know yourself, separate your insecurities from those of your colleagues. Keep listening, reflect on what you hear, consider how it connects with what you already know and check out your intentions with a trusted colleague, or impartial observer, such as your coach. If change is necessary, share your intentions. Model the leadership behaviour you would like to see in others.

Regard power as a gift loaned by those who have invested in you. Guard it well, and it will be repaid with interest.

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