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The Confusion Between Power and Leadership

I’ve had the honor of working with hundreds of leaders as an executive coach over the years. The courage my clients regularly demonstrate by digging deep within themselves to discover their strengths and their challenges is truly inspiring. To be able to confront the parts of you that derail success is a critical skill to have—but there is one almost universal “derailer” many leaders must overcome: confusing power and leadership.

What is the difference between simply having power and leading? Power is exercising control and authority over an individual or situation. Power is necessary in some instances when you are responsible for a specific outcome. However, making top-down controlling choices, does not make you a leader. Effective leaders know when utilizing power is necessary. A leader develops themselves so they can communicate and build relationships with integrity. A leader builds credibility and empowers people. Their intent is pure, and they have confidence is themselves and their people.

At Bold Font, we define leadership as using your intent and impact in service of something beyond yourself. Our ideas behind the mindset and behaviors of integrity-based leadership include:

1. Viewing power as tool and knowing to use it as a last resort.

2. Serving others even when you aren’t in a leadership position.

3. Deeply listening to concerns, ideas, or suggestions in order to demonstrate respect to others.

4. Respecting the autonomy of others and seeing others as naturally capable, able, and powerful.

5. Practicing empathy AND accountability.

6. Consistently using situational awareness to assess power dynamics to avoid inadvertently using power inappropriately.

7. The ability to conceptualiz and build a vision.

8. Intentionally building community and belonging.

9. The ability to foresee potential outcomes.

10. Being credible and able to persuade others through logical arguments/vision.

11. Fully committing to the growth of others.

Inversely, when someone has power, but has not done the deep personal work needed to become a leader, they exhibit predicable characteristics. Our ideas behind the mindset and behaviors that solely collect and maintain power include:

1. Seeking ways to control resources, people, and outcomes.

2. Downplaying or denying the accomplishments of others.

3. Viewing decisions and recommendations through a “what’s in it for me” lens.

4. Relying on social exclusion.

5. Rewarding loyalty and compliance.

6. Using policy and rules to control others.

7. Excusing harmful behavior.

8. Taking credit for others work.

9. Deflecting responsibility when things go wrong.

10. Consistently being hyper-critical of others.

11. Believing that external elements (money, employees, or information) need to be acquired (common referred to as “land grabs” or “empire building” in organizations).

In order to be successful as a leader, you need to understand the dynamic between power and leadership. With increased transparency in all parts of our lives, it is difficult to lead effectively without understanding the distinction between the two and how to utilize power effectively and appropriately.

The key? Understand how power impacts your relationships and how situational (and dynamic) power is in your life. Pay attention to how your power levels change depending on the roles you play in your life (mom, dad, wife, husband, boss, daughter, son, friend, parent, etc.). Honestly evaluate where you default to power behavior in your life. What beliefs do you hold that drive this behavior? How do you show up in different roles? Do you exert power over others? Do you feel powerless in some roles? Do you collaboratively share power? Asking yourself these questions will help you understand how unconscious your responses are. The journey to integrity-based leadership is never ending and takes energy, mindfulness, and relentless commitment. 

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