It's Time to Let Go of (inauthentic) Power


Let’s talk about power.

When faced with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity as we are in the current health, economic and political climate, it can be tempting to double down on structure, rules, policies and regulations, because these things give us a sense of power. And through that power, control.

The problem is, these forms of power and control aren’t real. They’re an illusion and clinging to them is a recipe for disaster over time.

I'm not saying there should be no org charts, or hierarchy. In fact, organizational hierarchies are a good thing because in theory, they allow people at each level to do their jobs better. Rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing, each individual can focus on their specific area and their specific results. In other words, hierarchy allows for specialization and focus.

But.

When leaders rely on the hierarchy not as a system for getting stuff done, but as a self-perpetuating system for obtaining power and control, organizational hierarchies become bureaucratic nightmares.

The truth is, the bureaucratic model is comforting to leaders who have an over-attachment to their needs for certainty and significance. This causes them to engage in a flawed form of thinking. I have the position. I have the authority. I’m the leader. Therefore, I’m worthy. In short, it’s for the weak and fearful. The irony of this mindset is that in the bureaucratic model, the authority and power belong to the position (i.e. job title) rather than the person. The person can be replaced, and the bureaucracy will continue to function.

So, we have to ask: Where’s the certainty and significance in that?

There is none, because we’re talking about inauthentic power. Authentic power is another thing entirely. And an authentically powerful leader is entirely different from one who is inauthentically powerful.

Instead of trying to be at the center of every decision and every activity, the authentically powerful leader enables decisions and activities. They distribute decision making power widely, and encourage diversity of people, experiences and viewpoints. This is how good stuff begins to emerge.

In their book Freedom Inc., Authors Brian Carney and Isaac Getz call this process “corporate liberation”. According to them, “A liberated company allows employees complete freedom and responsibility to take actions that they – not their managers – decide are best for their company’s vision”.

It’s all about trust and respect. The industrial era led us to increase control and decrease personal autonomy at work. Leaders didn’t want creative, self-directed employees, they wanted obedience and uniformity. But in the knowledge era, we need more from our employees. We need them to think, the connect and to innovate. And we just can’t regulate those behaviors.

Employees perform best and are at their most loyal when their needs for growth and contribution are being met on the job. Top down control kills that because top down control makes for small jobs. And small jobs make for small people. When employees aren’t trusted or respected, negative behaviors such as gossiping, missed workdays and even theft will abound, because we’ve effectively infantilized them. We’ve taken away their agency, their creative selves and their desire to excel. There’s not much left after that.

According to Gallup’s (super depressing) 2017 State of the American Workplace report, only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work. Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees (those acting out because of their dissatisfaction) cost the U.S. as much as $605 billion each year in lost productivity.

When we let go of control and employees are now able to strive for growth and contribution, well, everything changes. Expect more of them, liberate them, and watch them go. They won’t let us down. That same Gallup report reveals that the more engaged an organization’s employees are, the better it performs. At the world’s best organizations, 70 percent of employees are engaged.

Rather than setting a top-down strategic vision, and the much-dreaded cascading goals that lose all meaning the further down the org chart we go, we much allow change to emerge from within the organization and adapt our behavior and strategies accordingly.

In times of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity, true leadership is practiced in the mobilization of others the solve problems and create new things. This can happen at any level of the organization. Our job is to recognize these informal leaders as they emerge and remove internal and external barriers that may inhibit them from doing what needs to be done.

Authentic power is born of personal alignment with our values and purpose and a commitment to growth and contribution. A person who is in alignment doesn’t need to control everything. They observe, influence and enable.

So really, it all comes down to this: The most effective leaders are not in control of their teams. They’re in service to them.

Ready to become authentically powerful? Start here.

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