Power in Leadership

Most people in leadership shy away from admitting they like the power of their position. They see power as something negative or conniving. Negative phrases like “imposed authority,” “contained emotions,” and “obeying commands” are associated with the word power.

We are more comfortable saying we can influence or shape the mental model and actions of people without the use of force. That is perceived as much more respectable and tends to have greater acceptance.

In reality, we all have various forms of power that are needed, and even critical, in leadership positions.

Positional power often comes with the role and allows individuals to make demands on others and expect them to be compliant. Along with positional power, leaders often utilize reward power (ability to give rewards for work done) and coercive power (using threats or punishment). These uses of positional power can be effective in the short-run but overuse will lead to poor working relationships and potential conflict.

Personal power is available to all leaders regardless of their position. We might know someone with great charismatic power or charm, otherwise known as referent power. They present themselves with energy, endurance, empathy, humor and toughness. Those that have specialist knowledge or who demonstrate expertise in certain areas have expert power. Information power is when a person has needed or wanted information. That can be used in a positive way or a more negative or controlling way.

While we all have access to these various forms of positional or personal power, how we use them and how often we use them can make a difference in employee engagement or employee revolt.

For example, Rudy Giuliani was New York’s mayor from 1994 to 2001. He was known for his hard-hitting approach to crime and controversial opinions and communications. His style was not always appreciated by his constituents which showed in a 36% approval rating in 2000. However, his use of positional power during the 911 crisis in September 2001 helped pull the city out of chaos and the voters responded with an approval rating of 79%. He tried to extend the end of his term to continue to manage the situation but that was not allowed. While he was praised for his handling of this complex and critical situation, he had a history of unilateral decision making and abuse of power. What made him stand out in the crisis was not appreciated in the long term.

As healthcare leaders during the COVID-19 crisis, many of us have needed to participate in Incident Command centers, become authoritarians on expectations of social distancing and use of PPE, put safety and security first, and draw hard lines about working from home and closing facilities.

Now, as we weather the recovery process and even prepare for a second wave, we need to shift from a position of power to a participative and collaborative approach with influence in order to benefit from new ways of thinking and problem solving. We don’t want to make the mistake of leaders who found it was easier and faster to bark orders but who failed to see the long-term impact on those receiving those orders. Now is the time to use your referent or expert power and keep transparent communication and information flowing. That is the magic, or the power, of leadership.

Debra Harrison
About the author

Debra Harrison was the Chief Nursing Officer for Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida from 2006–2016. She retired in May 2016 and joined MEDI as an Executive Coach early 2017.

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