How Power Is Changing

A "right-thinking" leader is ambivalent about the concept of power: he acknowledges its existence, and understands how it can be used, but is squeamish about applying the word to himself.

The negative connotation of power is that is speaks of a person's desire to mobilize resources by his own will, to serve personal, rather that organizational ends, and that the application of power is an overbearing method of placing comp0ulsion on unwilling parties to act contrary to their own interests.

And yet, we respect and revere the use of power, though typically in arrears. Many historical figures are respected for their use of power to achieve greate ends in the face of much opposition.

Given this duality, the topic of power is diffuse, and is often discussed obliquely - leadership, negotiation, soft skills - and generally only in arrears, in the memoirs of those who have utilized it. As a result, it's a concept that contemporary leaders have difficulty understanding.

Getting Beyond Coercion

Most information on the topic of power dates from decades ago, but the lessons are still relevant.

An article written in 1976 discusses power as the most effective way to "create an effective work climate," provided that the goals for the application of power are of benefit to the organization. It also mentions power as an effective way to push the institutionalized leaders out of the inertia state of business as usual to face new challenges and rekindle growth.

A book written in 1975 lauds power as being necessary to finding a creative resolution to organizational conflict, when influence can be used to bring parties in conflict together and get them pulling in the same direction.

In 1982, the concept of power was classified, and detailed tactics were provided for using influence in a wide array of situations to accomplish organizational goals.

A few decades later, authors have been rethinking the topic.

A book published in 1995 examined the nature of power, and have attempted to redefine key terms to dilute their coercive implications: one's "office" as being the duty one has to the organization, "leadership" as being a mentor and a coach, and so on. It reflected a change in leadership from tyrant to patriarch ... but at the same time, it introduced uncertainty: the nature of power was explored, but there was no clear indication as to what a leader was supposed to do with this analysis.

Transforming Yourself

The current trend in management is "transformational leadership," touting a need for leaders who can guide an organization through changes, with the suggestion that leaders must transform themselves as a prerequisite to transforming their organizations.

In an oblique way, this approaches the topic of power, as considerable influence is needed to lead an organization through a radical change - to cajole when possible, but to exercise personal power to push the company in the right direction when gentler methods do not work.

Unfortunately, the author of that book is critical about the "unethical" application of power, but is not as clear on the proper use of it.

Letting People Feel the Threat

Another author, in the late 1990's, suggests a return to power: leadership in turbulent times requires questioning the status quo, getting people to think outside of their customary roles, and challenges the norms - and implies that a bold new form of leader will be needed to accomplish those goals.