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Your Margin of Power

A hidden dynamic that keeps you from leading effectively.

The most overlooked factor in effective leadership is capacity: the time, attention, and energy that you, as an individual leader, can give. You cannot manage people, projects, or priorities without it. You cannot remain engaged in the development of others without it. And leadership capacity is a necessary enabler for completing all of the elusive and important tasks on your plate, as well as for influencing others over whom you have no authority, navigating complexity, and dealing with the unexpected.

But most leaders today just don’t have enough capacity to accomplish all this. Consider this finding from a CEB study (pdf) conducted in 2013: The average manager has 12 direct reports, but had only seven before the recession of 2009. This leap represents a 70 percent increase, in personnel management alone (to say nothing of additional projects or other responsibilities). Even the most skilled leader cannot sustain the same level of effectiveness against that surge in demand.

Even without that added post-recession burden, the notion of doing more with less is baked into the job definitions of senior people. If you hold that type of role, you are expected to take on greater and greater responsibility throughout your career, presumably because you learn, every year, to be more productive. However, there is a limit to this logic. When the demands you face as a leader outpace your capacity to address them, your overall productivity declines and it becomes impossible to do more with less.

As a leader, you already know you should manage your time better and deploy your resources more strategically. But to really address the problem, you need to look at the underlying dynamic that constrains leadership capacity: your margin of power.

The concept of a margin of power, designed to help professionals discover the limits of their work capacity, was developed by the educational psychologist Howard McClusky. Though he remains relatively unknown in business circles, McClusky was an influential and pioneering theorist in adult education. As a professor at the University of Michigan in the 1930s (he remained there until his death in 1982), he wondered why some adults could successfully start and complete new projects, goals, or initiatives time after time while others became quickly overwhelmed and unable to continue. His research eventually led to a simple formula that expresses a relationship between the “load” a person carries (the demands placed on them by their family, work, civic duties, and their own ambitions) and their available “power” to carry it (their own energy, skill, competence, and integrity, along with the support they get from their communities and employers).

Converting his original ratio into a subtractive formula, McCluskey’s theory essentially says that Load–Power = Margin. Your margin is what’s left over after you expend your power to address your load. When you have a surplus of power, you not only meet your current demands but you can use your margin to increase your load in the form of new goals or projects. When you operate from a negative margin, your existing load is already too much to carry, and any new or unexpected challenges are likely to fail simply because of insufficient capacity. McClusky could tell which individuals would finish a class, attain a degree, or succeed with a new project by assessing their margin of power.

McCluskey and his followers developed various ways of scoring a person’s load (for example, this one from the University of Wyoming). They are generally based on a reflective assessment of the individual’s situation. The key to avoiding false starts and failures is to take on new efforts only after you intentionally increase your power to handle them, by developing the necessary surplus. Herein lies the critical issue for today’s maxed-out managers and leaders: Can they make an autonomous choice about what they are asked to take on? The loads that consume their available power are made up of responsibilities assigned to them, usually without the option of saying no. With rare exceptions, corporate leaders do not have the luxury of thoughtfully considering their available margin before taking on new responsibilities. It is all too easy for their margin to drop dangerously.

When your margin is too low, the gap between increasing demands and your shrinking capacity widens past the point of no return. Seeking to catch up and stay afloat, you inadvertently begin to work against yourself in counterproductive ways. You get caught in firefighting and triage. You make impossible trade-offs that consume your attention. Every day, some new task rises above all your other unfinished priorities. One or two “fires of the day” get extinguished while others are selectively ignored simply because you lack the capacity to put them all out.

This type of capacity gap has enormous costs. When was the last time you had ample time, energy, resources, and focus to look beyond the immediate urgencies of the moment and conduct the harder, more ambiguous work of leading effectively? When did you have time to consider your own development, think about unseen opportunities, generate your own signature thought leadership, or dedicate yourself to other endeavors that matter? With a very low margin, you are less likely to innovate or seek creative solutions to problems, less likely to develop others or to hold them accountable, more likely to fail to meet stretch goals and deadlines, and more likely to clock longer hours, even after mentally “quitting for the day.” We’ll never know what you would have developed or done differently if you had more power and capacity, but we know that, in aggregate, the lost chances to innovate and lead are significant.

When this happens throughout an enterprise, the entire company can be paralyzed by what I call the “zero margin effect.” In other words, the margin of power for most managers in the company drops close to zero, and then these individuals draw on one another for help, exhausting each other even more in the process, and the total available capacity drops even further.

If you manage people, priorities, or projects, you are susceptible to the zero margin effect. And if you lead teams and business units, you are the steward of a culture that either reinforces that effect or helps reverse it. There are no shortcuts to address this kind of challenge, but the first step is an honest look at your own capacity right now. Only by coming face-to-face with your own margin of power can you gain the leverage you need to respond more effectively. My next blog post will explain how to accomplish this.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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