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Wanted: Leaders Who Use Their Powers for Good

Putting people at the heart of your business strategy is the way to start reshaping a heartless system.

After writing my last column, an overview of the very disheartening book called Leadership BS, I practically had to wipe my tears off of my keyboard. The book’s author, Jeffrey Pfeffer, presents research to demonstrate that the business environment encourages aberrant leadership behaviors — selfishness, immodesty, lying, and so on — in spite of their negative impact. And, during my interview with Pfeffer, he squelched my dream of a conscious capitalist utopia when he stated his belief that companies routinely named the best places to work because of their open, honest, and transparent environments will continue to be the exception rather than the rule. “Leaders will trade off money and performance for ego, power, and control” time and time again, he told me.

But now that I’ve had some time to get over the shock of having my hopes dashed so summarily, my tears have dried. And, upon reflection, I have to respectfully disagree. In the fight for talent, the current dismal state of employee engagement is no longer tenable. Furthermore, there are too many “best of” exemplars of companies that are doing things right and turning a profit at the same time for firms and leaders to rationalize their bad behavior as “just business.” I believe we can, want, and must to do better.

One of my all-time favorite books is Harold Kushner’s Living a Life That Matters.  According to Kushner, living a meaningful life requires recognizing that “our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way,” and devoting “much of our lives, much of our energy…to closing the gap between the longings of our soul and the scoldings of our conscious.” Further, Kushner writes, “the people we find ourselves admiring most tend to be the people who strike us as having closed the gap, having resolved that conflict.”

Over the past couple of years, I have had the honor of profiling a number of these admirable leaders who are using their power to take care of their business and the people within. As I reflected on my talk with Pfeffer, I realized that these leaders have resolved the conflict by using their position and business as a platform for social good, rather than for personal aggrandizement. For them, acquiring power and success is the means, not the end. These leaders view the world — and their jobs — differently from most. They have a mind-set of abundance, not scarcity.

Scarcity-minded leaders believe that business is a zero-sum game in which they can either serve themselves or serve others. They do what is asked or expected, without challenging the status quo or changing the rules of the game. For example, in a recent meeting with an HR executive, I heard (yet another) story of brutal layoffs, a decision made with no serious consideration of alternatives that would have allowed the company to sidestep the cuts and buy time to design a more flexible staffing strategy. The truly ironic part of the story is that the company (masochistically, it would seem) continues to conduct employee engagement surveys but its leaders refuse to meaningfully discuss with their staffers the root causes of the (increasingly) disappointing results.

In contrast, abundance-minded leaders believe that in serving others, they can also serve themselves. They accumulate power for a greater purpose. They aren’t blindly or simply idealistic; they don’t merely trust in the inherent goodness of humankind. Rather, they’re passionately realistic, understanding that to change the system, they have to play the power game, and play it well.

Abundance-minded leaders believe that in serving others, they can also serve themselves.

These leaders also understand how to retain power once they have it. Check out another (somewhat dark) Pfeffer book called Power: Why Some People Have it — and Others Don’t, and you will learn that powerful people amass power by:

·       Picking the right industry and job and sticking with it

·       Developing provocative visions that engage others in their journey

·       Understanding organizational politics (i.e., how things get done) and investing in relationships in and outside of their companies

·       Using their emotions strategically, choosing their battles carefully, and never adopting a victim mentality

·       Taking the offensive and volunteering to do things others are unwilling to do or haven’t even considered

·       Working hard and building strong organizations that deliver great work

·       Controlling their performance narrative by getting others to sing their praises

More importantly, abundance-minded leaders know how to use their power, to start new companies, change culture, reshape operating models, and improve performance, all while putting people at the heart of their motivation and strategies. Regardless of their level of leadership, abundance-minded leaders do what they can from where they are. Consider that, according to the Robert Sutton book The No Asshole Rule, “37 percent of Americans reported being bullied by others” and that “people reported being bullied at roughly 80 times the rate they admitted to bullying others.” Getting rid of workplace jerks can and should be done at every level, by every leader. It is a great use of power given that, as Sutton explains, “a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hordes of civilized people.”

Abundance-minded leaders also know how to keep their power in check. This is critical because, as Pfeffer explains in Power, “power produces overconfidence and risk taking, insensitivity to others, stereotyping, and a tendency to see other people as a means to the power holder’s gratification.” Keeping power in check can be done, Pfeffer writes, by maintaining “perspective and balance” through exposure to a “social circle that doesn’t really care” about their position or power. Additionally, Sutton writes that avoiding vicious people, eschewing judgment by tuning into others’ humanity, and keeping the mantra “I have enough” in mind can help leaders check their power.

In his book, Kushner tells a story of a Native American tribal leader describing his inner struggles. He tells Kushner, “There are two dogs inside me. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.” When asked which one will win, the tribal leader pauses and says, “The one I feed the most.”

We have been feeding the mean dog for too long. But now we know it and we’re starting to shift our mind-set — to the benefit of the business and the people within it — to see opportunities where formerly there were only constraints.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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