The division CEO and chief financial officer glared ferociously at each other after a heated exchange. Twelve others sat tensely around the conference room table, silently assessing their limited options: Do the politically expedient thing and side with the CEO, or do what’s mostly right for the business and side with the CFO? This lose-lose outcome has it all — power gone wrong, ego overload and one-track thinking — and plays out all too frequently in businesses of all sizes.
Trapped on the dark side of leadership, some individuals get “so fixated on finding a shortcut to the goal that they may not be too particular about the means they use to reach it,” observes David C. McClelland, psychological theorist and 30-year Harvard University professor. When will leaders learn my-way-or-the-highway isn’t the only option?
Stop the power trip. Lord Acton’s observation that power corrupts is only partially true; the seduction happens only if you allow it. Power and authority can be a heady siren’s song, luring you out of self-awareness into a no-man’s land of faux omniscience. Savvy leaders don’t make that leap. Choosing instead to say attuned to, and even seek out, feedback. They want to know how others perceive them. Integrity, authenticity and ethics hold their center stage: doing right and doing well hold equal value. “Authority and power are two different things: power is the force by means of which you can oblige others to obey you. Authority is the right to direct and command, to be listened to or obeyed by others. Authority requests power. Power with authority is tyranny,” writes philosopher Jacques Maritain.
Nurture tolerance. Don’t be so quick to conclude that those who hold a differing opinion are wrong or misguided or need converting to your point of view. The glass can be both half-empty and half-full; both assessments are correct. One need look no further than our governing bodies in Washington, D.C. to see the gridlock that results from polarized mindsets. Different doesn’t mean wrong.
Diversity of thought produces outcomes far superior to those possible with one-dimensional approaches. It’s time-consuming and perhaps annoying to deal with contrarians, but with a workforce full of multiple generations, more women and more people of color, doing so builds respect, fosters positive unconditional regard, and gives new voices the opportunity to be heard.
Think big. It’s tempting to believe the urban legend that you know best because you occupy the seat at the head of the table or run the big project. Resist doing so. A leader’s role to synthesize ideas, not strangle them.
Abandoning stability for innovation can result in chaos. Embracing centralized decision-making in lieu of decentralized autonomy can produce a cadre of low-performing yes men. Always following the book rather than the occasional in-the-moment response can generate organizational paralysis. A strength overplayed generally becomes a weakness. A leader who thinks big knows when to shift between seemingly contradictory practices to maximize outputs and engagement.
Effective leaders understand there is a time and place for simplistic black-and-white thinking. Yet, they also recognize situations requiring balance and/or oscillation between opposing viewpoints, like maintaining a core of stability while also encouraging creative new ideas.
Leadership behavior is the primary influencer of organizational activity, connection and culture. Effective leaders are most particular about the means they employ to make them happen.