Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I walked through the cubicle maze under a sea of florescent lighting distracted by my blackberry and bumped into one of my most favorite business leaders. He smiled, declared fate, and asked me if I had a few minutes to talk.

As we exited the maze into his plush corner office, he sat in his favorite chair as I took the one directly across. Before I could sit down he asked "What do you think about power?"

Interesting question for a flyby chat--even more interesting given I knew that Mr. Favorite Business Leader just had a conversation with his boss resulting in a promotion. Not just any promotion but a promotion that in our corporate world of hierarchy really "means something".

As an HR executive with little use for titles, hierarchy, or power, I always find the conversations after a promotion like this enlightening. Where I work we have Directors, Assistant Vice Presidents, Vice Presidents, Senior Vice Presidents, Executive Vice Presidents, and Presidents. That's six layers of executive hierarchy before the CEO who all make six- and seven-figure salaries and none of them ever directly interact with a customer. Throughout my many years with this company the insightful conversations always happen at this level... Executive Vice President.

Although this achievement is wonderfully important for so many reasons to so many leaders, I often have mixed emotions when this important milestone is achieved by business leaders I really like and in this case, the best leader I have ever worked with. This is the turning point where the context of my coaching always changes from how best to run a business and lead an organization to how to navigate the shark tank they have just been dumped into.

Back to the "power" question.

"Interesting question, why do you ask?"

FBL (Favorite Business Leader) moves over to his desk, picks up the newspaper and says, "I was just reading about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and thinking through the history of people with "power" who so easily abused it."

At first I am distracted that EVP FBL has time during his day to read the newspaper given I barely have time to go to the bathroom, but I quickly bring myself back to the conversation.

I pause a moment to evaluate whether or not I have the time to do justice to this conversation, realize I don't, re-evaluate what I mean by "justice", drop the expectations, and simply share my thoughts. Here are a few tidbits from our conversation:
  • Most people talk about power from the perspective of the person with said power. I always talk about it from the perspective of the people who actually give the power.
  • To me power is a result of the beliefs of the people who based on those beliefs choose to act in a certain way.
  • Power is dependent both on the beliefs of the person with the perceived power (my perspective is important, right, people should rally around this, etc.) and the people who give the power (I believe in this and therefore I will do, act, say, etc.).
  • Whether or not the person is abusing power or using power for good is dependent on the beliefs of the people or society judging the actions. Hitler's power was judged as good by many at the time. It took a different group of people with a different set of beliefs to determine it was bad.

As we talk through it, the real catalyst for the conversation is FBL's belief that status creates power and power changes people, usually in a bad way.

My response is simply, "only if you let it".

How has power affected your life? How have you let it?

Love to all,

1 comment:

  1. Kathy, what a great topic.

    I like the idea that power takes a conspiracy between the ones who wield it and the ones over whom it is wielded.

    Another thing that occurs to me is that some people derive power from external sources (position, status, money, connections) and others from internal sources (confidence, persistence, resourcefulness, energy). Many with external power lack internal power, e.g., business leaders who can't make decisions, managers who berate employees, etc.

    I think that challenges arise with power when we start to "need" it: to get done what we want to accomplish, to feel good about ourselves, to feel that everything's under control.

    The other thing that occurs to me is that you can measure power in terms of endowment or in terms of effect. People may be endowed with internal and external elements of power and then never use them or never use them effectively. Others who are perceived as having less power, may accomplish much. So, who would be the most powerful?

    Good food for thought!



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