By Caterina Bulgarella
Power is the one currency that all leaders have, but it is also one of the most misunderstood assets in leadership. How leaders relate to power, and their beliefs about effective leadership, are two hidden factors that shape their ability to maintain an ethical focus while guiding business through change and continued growth.
Studies show that the accrual and exercise of power often come at the cost of disconnecting from others and losing the ability to take perspective. In other words, not only are leaders liable to become less empathetic as they accumulate power, but they are also likely to grow more self-entitled. And even though most leaders arrive at positions of power by building relationships and working with others along the way, once they settle in their powerful roles, they may forget the behaviors that made them influential in the first place.
Why? When we are powerless, we need to work with others to achieve goals and results, but when we are powerful, we can expect others to work for us to accomplish what we want. Having power creates new expectations. It insulates us and erodes the need to connect with those around us. But not all leaders relate to power in the same way.
Take Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, for example, and this quote from Hit Refresh about power, drive, and ambition.
My attitude was that the board would select the best person. It would be great if it were me. But I would also be equally happy working for someone the board had confidence in. In fact, as part of the interview process one of the board members suggested that if I wanted to be CEO, I needed to be clear that I was hungry for the job. I thought about this and even talked to Steve [Ballmer]. He laughed and simply said, ‘It’s too late to be different.’ It just wouldn’t be me to display that kind of personal ambition.
His detached stance, far from preventing him from leading Microsoft, was actually one of his great assets: It helped him hit refresh and successfully lead the organization through a remarkable culture transformation. As Satya Nadella concluded harboring intense personal ambition—a dangerous attraction to power—was simply not who he was. This self-awareness is critically important because it is when leaders perceive that they have unchecked control over others that the perils of power are most likely to strike.
Whether leaders hold “high power” simply because of their role in a hierarchy, the culture of the organization or their own ambitious predispositions, one thing should catch their attention: the more power you have, the more likely you are to fall prey to your own feelings and beliefs.
The Impact Of Internal Beliefs On Leadership
Studies show that leaders with elevated power are more prone to making key decisions—such as the allocation of scarce resources—based on their views about effective leadership rather than based on contextual information. High power tends to make leaders less receptive to data and signals from their environment—it insulates them from their context. What ends up guiding leaders’ decisions, then, are their beliefs, especially about leadership.
All leaders hold specific beliefs about what leadership entails. Some leaders think that successful leadership encompasses entitlement, privilege and power distance. Because they view accomplished leaders as standing far ahead of the group, they will be more likely to make decisions that put their personal needs, preferences and wants before the group’s. But other leaders believe that effective leaders operate in the service of the group and will focus on the organization and their team first.
What a leader deeply believes matters because, unlike feelings, beliefs are enduring, unless a leader intentionally works to reshape them. Beliefs are likely to have a profound effect on how a leader behaves and makes decisions. Moreover, the more ingrained these beliefs are, the more they operate as blind spots.
Imagine a leader with high power who views leadership in terms of privilege and entitlement. Not only would this leader likely use his role for personal enrichment in defiance of social norms that forbid conflict of interest, but he would see no wrong in doing so. For him, using power for his own personal advantage would be inherently right because leadership, in his mind, entails greater personal gain for the leader.
In contrast, in his book, Hit Refresh, Satya Nadella discusses his own views of leadership, laying out principles such as the importance of putting one’s team ahead of personal statistics and recognition, as well as bolstering the confidence of the people one is leading. These principles reveal his belief that leadership entails service.
Leaders are likely to have fewer self-serving biases when they are circumscribed by internal and/or external checks and balances. A leader who perceives the limits of power and who views leadership as leading in service of the organization is positioned to achieve fair, ethical and effective outcomes. This leader may forego short-term costs to pursue far greater long-term benefits.
An example of such leadership posture can be found in Marc Benioff’s stance toward principles of Ohana, a set of norms underscoring reciprocal obligations and authentic ties, has distinguished himself for viewing leadership as having a larger purpose of service. When Cindy Robbins, Salesforce’s Chief People Officer, raised the issue of a potential gender pay gap in the organization, Benioff, spurred by his own beliefs, first demurred—that’s not possible here, he said.
But despite his initial denial, he asked Robbins to conduct a review of employee compensation. He was receptive to contextual information that was instrumental to his fully grasping the problem and having the insights to fix it. Today, Salesforce stands as one company that has addressed the gender pay gap explicitly and directly, not only among its immediate employees, but also among employees of acquired companies that have merged into the Salesforce family.
Ascending To The Full Meaning of Leadership
A leader’s beliefs can enhance the biases that power insularity is likely to trigger. They can create the conditions for unethical conduct, and they can become a major obstacle to effective leadership. The more influence a leader has, the more critical it is that he/she understand his/her internalized views of power and leadership. Here are three ways in which leaders can develop greater consciousness as they seek the full meaning of leadership in their personal and professional journey of influence and impact:
- Exploring Their Inner Space.
Leadership is not a process of control, but one of emancipation (of self and others) that can only be fulfilled by gaining deeper awareness. The development of strong leadership capacities requires knowing one’s internal motives, personal values, deeper aspirations and learned behaviors. Leaders who are willing to explore their inner space can develop transformative awareness. Gaining such insights will answer key questions, such as: Do I know what my internalized beliefs are and what they mean? Do I know how these beliefs affect me? Are the beliefs I hold right now the beliefs I need to deepen my leadership capacities?
- Creating Norms of Personal Accountability and Responsibility.
The way leadership and power are exercised in an organization has profound implications for both ethics and risk. Leaders who use power for personal gain widen the gap between stated values and actual organizational practices, creating ethical risk. Furthermore, when leaders act on their beliefs—be these about excellence, success or effectiveness—without fully exploring what such beliefs mean, they may unwittingly place conflicting and irreconcilable demands on employees, creating difficult ethical tradeoffs. This is why norms and mechanisms that strengthen the personal responsibility of stakeholders with power are critically important in an organization. The principles of Ohana Benioff introduced at Salesforce are an example of how leaders can hold themselves accountable and rise to the level of genuine ethical leadership, as was the case for Benioff when he faced the pay equity challenge.
- Acknowledging the Power of Others.
If there are two pieces of advice leaders always receive, they are to get feedback and delegate more. But given the warping effects of high power, these two tactics aren’t sufficient. Instead, leaders must literally go beyond themselves and leverage the power of others—the power of different perspectives, identities, experiences, work styles, backgrounds, areas of expertise and other human qualities. Daring to go beyond oneself and seeking the genuine insights of others who are not beholden to them, leaders can position themselves to experience healthy discomfort and continue to test and evolve their personal beliefs.
It is telling that both Satya Nadella and Marc Benioff, two extraordinarily successful leaders, have focused on the transformative power of diversity in their organizations as part of a more evolved and effective approach to leadership and growth.
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This content was originally published by Forbes Magazine. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Forbes Magazine