Et Tu, Brute? The Obsolescence of Power

Originally published on August 2011.

Traditional sources of power are obsolete in the 21st century business world — or at least I hope they are. I came to this realization on a recent vacation, and it’s been nagging at me ever since. Every year I travel to Ashland, Oregon, for the annual Shakespeare Festival (which is a bit of a misnomer since it runs February through November). This year I saw Julius Caesar, with a twist that I really appreciated: Caesar was played by a woman, and the script was changed to use “she” and “her” to match. This play left me feeling emotionally unsettled for the next 24 hours, but it had nothing to do with Caesar’s gender bender. The intensity began before I even entered the theater. As I approached the entrance, a dozen huge banners featuring slain leaders from around the world hung from the lampposts and beat noisily in the wind. More banners adorned the theater lobby, and as I devoured the dates and details of each one, an icy feeling crept into my heart.

All of these leaders — the good, the bad, and the ugly — had been murdered. Leaders I’d considered “good guys,” like former US president Abraham Lincoln, were mixed in with some of the most notorious bastards in history. But each banner had two sides — like the two sides of power portrayed in the play. One painted the subject in a positive light, and the other side portrayed them as monsters, knaves, and worse. Good old Abe Lincoln was titled “Emancipator,” but also “Tyrant.” I’d never thought of him as a tyrant, but perhaps those he opposed felt differently. It got me thinking about power in project teams.

How are powerful project leaders viewed? Maybe it depends on who you ask. These days I’m pretty careful about how I throw my power around, but I was a bit more brash in my youth. When I was putting my heart, soul, and a whole lot of hours into leading a team worthy of success on a project that seemed destined for defeat, I was sometimes mistaken for a tyrant. Meanwhile, those whose cause I represented thought I was a godsend. Like the two sides of those banners, maybe I was both.

Power Bugs Me

Truth be told, I have a lifelong problem with people in power that started with my dad. (Don’t worry, we’re friends now.) As a child, it seemed to me that my father abused his position of power in our family. What’s more, most of the people in positions of authority I’ve encountered since leaving home have not weakened my disillusionment. I was truly irritated when I read in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, that research has proven you can increase your power in the corporate world via behaviors such as interrupting people and other despicable tactics. He also describes as “opponents” folks that I think would be better characterized as stakeholders, colleagues, and potential collaborators. In his view, there’s only so much room at the top of the corporate hierarchy, so if you want to get there you’ve got to scramble over the other crabs trying to crawl up the sides of the bucket. Upon further reading, it turns out that he isn’t advising people to be power-grabbing sociopaths so much as warning us of the realities of the world in which we live. Still, how depressing!

Although it’s sometimes frustrating to be a project leader with little or no positional power over the people on our teams, I’ve begun to think that this works in our favor. In his fascinating book Good Boss, Bad Boss, Dr. Robert Sutton reports on how power corrupts human beings. According to statistically valid research, people with power are “F.I.N.E.R.” That is, they:

  • Receive more positive FEEDBACK than people without power
  • Have less control over their IMPULSES
  • Think more about their own NEEDS than the needs of others
  • Are less EMPATHETIC than people without power
  • Think the RULES don’t apply to them

Wonder if promotions favor such megalomaniacs? Nope! It’s that having power poisons you. Yuck! I’ve disliked the whole notion of “power” for my whole life, and after reading Bob’s book, I know why.

Think you aren’t vulnerable? Think again. Human beings are awful judges of our own capabilities. According to a David Brooks in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “Ninety-four percent of college professors believe they are above average teachers, and 90% of drivers believe they are above average behind the wheel. Researchers Paul J.H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave computer executives quizzes on their industry. Afterward, the executives estimated that they had gotten 5 percent of the answers wrong. In fact, they had gotten 80 percent of the answers wrong.”

Pfeffer’s book recounts experiments showing that even randomly assigned and temporary power causes people to change in rather unappealing ways. They become overconfident and insensitive to others, engage in stereotyping, and tend to see other people as a means to their own gratification. And the bad behavior only gets worse during times of stress and scarce resources, which pretty much describes every project I’ve ever seen.

Partnership Trumps Patriarchy

This is the century of collaboration. Not only do results improve when people work together to make good use of the group genius (see, for example, The Leadership Challenge), it’s more enjoyable as well. We’ve already seen that power is accompanied by the risk of power poisoning. And while I hope there’s no chance of being bumped off for being a power-poisoned project leader, people might decide they don’t want to work on your team. Considering the tendency of people to look for another job when they’re miserable, as well as the coming shortage of working age people in developed nations, relying on traditional sources of power doesn’t seem to be a long-term leadership success strategy.

Mind you, I’m a realist, and very aware that wielding power works. That’s why it’s so tempting to misuse it! But I think I’ve finally learned my lesson through leading a volunteer organization for the past six years. The team consists of mid-level and senior level engineering professionals, and since they are all volunteers I have no formal hold on them. Although I’m naturally drawn to having my own way (who isn’t?), I’ve found myself being much more thoughtful about how I interact with people on this team. They can quit at any moment, and if they don’t complete their action items there isn’t much I can do about it. Our relationship, and their commitment to being part of this worthy cause, is all that motivates them to keep their promises to me and to the team. When someone does a great job I lavish them with sincere praise. When people don’t deliver and I want to rant, I don’t. Instead I work myself into an empathetic state and pitch in to help out. When people want to drop out of the team for a while, I let them know they’ll always be welcome back when their schedule allows it. And when tempers flare, I appeal to reason, touting the value of the relationships over the results.

In the end, I believe this has produced better outcomes than my previous single-minded obsession with results. After six years, I have finally come to realize that I’m a better leader when I don’t use my power. (What a pity I didn’t learn this lesson before alienating untold scores of people. Well, at least they didn’t murder me in the Theater of Pompey on the Ides of March!)

21st Century Power Tools

Much of our modern understanding of power in the business world is fueled by outdated concepts of organizational hierarchies. The fact is that teams and organizations increasingly consist of people who do not share a clear reporting structure. Suppliers, customers, alliance partners, and university researchers collaborate with cross-functional business teams, with no one “boss” that they must all pay tribute to. Influence, collaboration, and facilitation — not position or title — are the 21st century power tools. Our project teams are frequently playing a game that only a team can win. As we seek to lead more effectively in this world of complex relationships, poisoned power is something we can do without.

Old-fashioned notions of power are obsolete, and downright tacky if you ask me. But be vigilant! Positional power is very seductive, as I was reminded during the brilliant ending of Measure for Measure at the festival. A devout nun who managed to retain her integrity through many temptations is invited to marry a powerful official many years her senior, who makes the tantalizing promise, “What’s mine is yours.” Although she’s obviously not attracted to him personally, when she walks past the podium, the symbol of his power, she pauses to touch the sides of the pulpit. The look on her face is nothing short of ecstasy as she feels the power available to her through this unromantic union. The deal is done.

Next time I’m tested, I sincerely hope that I have the strength to walk past that pulpit!

Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management, one of the top-ranked project management books on Amazon in the US, published in Japanese, and growing in popularity around the world. She’s the editor and co-author of Scrappy Women in Business, a collection of the stories of a dozen scrappy businesswomen. She splits her work time between the US and Japan.

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