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Why do People Mistake Power for Leadership?

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Why do People Mistake Power for Leadership?

Last year, a little before the US Presidential elections, actress Rosario Dawson, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, said: ‘Hillary Clinton is not a leader but a follower because she follows public opinion.’

No wonder we consider Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Steve Jobs as great leaders. Madiba created a Rainbow Nation despite strong sentiment against the whites. During partition Mahatma Gandhi ensured peace in the then Calcutta in spite of fear and anger in both Hindus and Muslims. Steve Jobs refrained from market research and said multiple times that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them, so much for public opinion.

All these leaders went against public opinion. We admire powerful leaders. No, a correction – we expect our leaders to be powerful. In fact, a leader is gauged by the power he/she wields.

But can leadership be synonymous with power? Is there a cause and effect relationship between the two, or are they totally unrelated?

The story of the lion and the mouse

Let’s look at the example of the king of the jungle – the lion.

Do you remember the fable of the lion and the mouse, where the lion was sleeping and a mouse playing nearby woke him up? The disturbed lion was very angry and was about to kill the mouse when the mouse pleaded to be spared. He said in return he would help the lion at his time of need.

The lion laughed it off, but let the mouse go anyway… One day the lion was caught in the net of a hunter. The mouse spotted him and came to his rescue. He bit off the net and set him free.

Moral of the story: No one is small or inconsequential.

Leadership in context of power

The takeaway for us today is that leaders of organisations or countries may land up in helpless situations where someone else, lower down the ladder, may hold more power than them.

Thus, a leader does not have power in all situations, and particularly does not hold power in isolation. We don’t have to look far. Madiba had wide public support, but he felt isolated and did not continue as President after the first term. Though being called a ‘mahatma’, Gandhi could not get Nehru and Jinnah to agree. Steve Jobs was fired from the company he started. So effectively, leadership and power are not synonymous.

Does power result in leadership?

Of course not. After all, you wouldn’t consider the traffic cop at the signal, excise inspector at a factory visit, or a notary at court as great leaders.

Then what happens to all the so-called business leaders, basically the top management of organisations… Aren’t they referred to as leaders purely because of their designation?

Defining power and identifying its source
Oxford dictionary defines power: As the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.According to Bauer and Erdogan, there are six sources of power: 1) legitimate, 2) reward, 3) coercive, 4) information, 5) expert, and 6) referent. Of these legitimate (authority), reward (compensation and award), coercive (punishment for non-compliance), and information (have access to specific information) are due to the position that the person has in a hierarchy. Expert (personal expertise) and referent (personal characteristics) are due to personal traits or skills.

Now this is interesting… When we said that power does not result in leadership, it essentially implies that mere hierarchy or formal bases of power do not explain or cause leadership. Even expert power does not create or cause leadership… Otherwise, we would see more scientists, painters, or chefs as leaders. That still leaves us with one source – referent power.

Author John Maxwell says, ‘leadership is influence’. But how do leaders influence others?

To begin with, it is their belief system and attitude, reflected in what they say and do. Isn’t referent power the cause of leadership, then? More about this in a future blog…

Power in context of leadership

Referent power may or may not be the only cause but it definitely is one factor that results in leadership. Otherwise, leadership (especially political leadership) would never move out of a family.

Can you think of a leader who was not powerful? We both know you will not be able to come up with any name. So it seems very logical that leadership is the cause that results in a leader having power to influence the decisions of others. And this is the reason it becomes confusing. Referent power – plus other factors – produce leadership, while leadership produces positional power.

Hence the most common mistake we make is to equate positional power with leadership. As a result leadership aspirants pursue positional power as litmus test to prove their leadership, completely ignoring the fact that having power will not make them a leader.

Powerful Leadership

Amazon.com has more than 190,000 books on leadership. Surely that’s a lot of books on a topic that does not have consensus even on the way it’s defined. I think the popularity of leadership is in its charm that it cuts across hierarchy. It is truly available to everyone without any discrimination or bias.

That’s the reason we see acts of leadership from across an organisation’s hierarchy, not just at the top 2-3 levels. Like the lion and mouse story, it can be exhibited by the most unexpected of employees. The need of the hour is to acknowledge, accept, and appreciate this fact. Everyone has something to bring to the table. Are we allowing the mouse to come to the table? When it is actually in the self-interest of the lion.

Whatever way we may define leadership, eventually a leader has to enable its followers to have a bigger dream and become a better version of themselves. If we want to be exemplary leaders, it will do us a world of good if we remember and focus on this instead of chasing power.

Author Profile: Madhukar Kumar is a leadership coach and believes in the philosophy of “Know Thyself”. His non-judgemental listening coupled with thought-provoking questioning has helped his clients to uncover authentic leadership. This article is conceptualised by Yellow Spark and written by Madhukar.