What does it mean to be a better leader? How is a personal leadership philosophy enacted?

Every executive in a leadership role wants to leave his or her mark. Like navigators on a journey, they have one eye fixed on the horizon and the other on the current position.

Part of that positioning relies on listening to their inner compass of achievement and contentment, leveraging their strengths and making choices of how to spend their time. Managerial leadership reflects who you are – to a degree. There are intersections between the personal and the professional. An executive often masks aspects of their identity by deciding which parts of themselves to hide and which parts to reveal.

Personal beliefs and imprints can mean that an executive achieves success despite certain factors, not because of them.

A different mirror may be valuable. When I work with executives, our coaching conversations explore leadership in the context of their organisation and themselves, what transitions are needed to move to the next-level, change as a choice, what is known and unknown about the future; and which strengths should continue to be used, which ones to let go or which to use with less intensity.

Our coaching conversations also recognise that Australians accept that leadership is imperfect – but only to a point. We expect leaders to wear their power lightly. There is little tolerance for self-interest, breaches of trust or inconsistency of conviction. We see through pretence. 

A snapshot of those discussions on managerial leadership centres on:

What Executives Grapple With: Identity, Power, Trust, Time, Resilience and Ethics

What Executives Grapple With: Identity, Power, Trust, Time, Resilience and Ethics

It is important to explore how leaders perceive and use their power.

People do not ‘have’ power implicitly, as power is both conditional and situational. It depends on context – who relates to whom and under what circumstances, while relying on influence and the compliance of others. It also depends on timing – reading the dynamics in the moment.

Ethical and purposeful uses of power are at the core of effective leadership. Power is not without risk. It can be applied with restraint or unknowingly or with deliberate bluntness. For executives, it is knowing when and how to use their power and what makes them (and others) powerless.

Of course, there are several types of power: Legitimate power that comes from the role and authority; Personal power based on reputation, expertise, competence, sense of self; Interpersonal power which is derived from relationships.

Then there is ‘power-over’ versus ‘power-to.’ ‘Power-over’ is implicit to make ‘power-to’ work. Those who take up a leadership role attain influence over others. Power-over is the capacity to get people to do what they don’t want to do due to resources, status, expertise, reward or punishment.

‘Power-to’ is the ability or potential to bring about change. Empowerment has an assumed good. ‘Power-to’ recognises that power is relational and reciprocal. This is when influence is used to create change, build teams; develop sustainable approaches that prevent crisis.

Collegiality fosters ‘power-with’ while mentoring nurtures ‘power-within.’ These more altruistic approaches use power and influence for purposes broader than personal advantage. It is passing on what has been learnt and creating meaningful collaboration through shared experiences. It builds synergistic, highly engaged and productive teams.

Power is as much about followers as it is leaders. Anyone at any level can exercise power – and also resistance. Who has the power? The one who directs? Or the one who lets the ‘dance’ take place?

Executives must not only understand corporate context, with the attached power dynamics, but also explore the webs of power existing around roles.  Where unequal power exists, those with less power are ultra-tuned and sensitive to the conscious and unconscious actions of the more powerful. The relational skills that the less powerful use to deal with this, becomes associated with a lack of power.

Personal power and “power-to” can be attributes of transformational or adaptive leadership. Further, by being collaborative across silos (fostering ‘power-with’) and creating mentoring cultures (nurturing ‘power-within’) they build highly engaged and productive teams.

People who lead with a “power-to” style when asked: “do you have power?” tell stories about their use of influence, how they create change, build teams, develop sustainable approaches that prevent crisis. They talk about backing their judgement. It’s not that they don’t take up their personal authority derived from their role and task. Nor do they turn away from tough decisions, but altruistically they do want power and influence for purposes broader than personal advantage.

Then there is the need to balance opposites. As I wrote in my article, Powerplay: “Think about autonomy and individual achievement versus results enabled by an intricate collaborative network of alliances. Think of command-and-control hierarchies versus participative interactions of leaders and followers. Think of a directive style versus enabling others to take up their own authority. Think of making choices versus integrating the ‘and’.”

As Peter Drucker said in The Effective Executive: ”… the executive integrates individual purpose and organisation needs, individual capacity and organisation results, individual achievement and organisation opportunity.”

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