I’m a big fan of using literary and historical quotes in my articles. It’s a way of making those that have gone before immortal while at the same time putting a flourish on an article with words from those far smarter than myself. One slightly annoying side effect of using these quotes is that I regularly have the literary version of an earworm going on inside my head. A situation I encounter brings to mind quotes from articles past and thence begins a recurring cycle.

That occurred to me recently in relation to a Lord Acton quote I’m a big fan of and have used in more than one article in the past. The quote, perhaps Acton’s most famous uttering is, of course,

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely

The occasion that got me thinking down this line was in relation to an organisation I’m a voluntary member of. The specifics of that organisation likely have little relevance to the object of this article. Regardless of that fact that many readers who know me will immediately know exactly which organisation I’m referring to. Anyway, back to this situation.

I was recently reading some material said organisation provided to members as part of its aim to prepare them for leadership. The material in question discussed the difference between positional power and personal power.

Positional power is, of course, the power that comes from title, rank, status or class. It is the power that in classed societies results in some individuals with little to distinguish themselves, lording over other individuals who are far better human beings. Personal power, on the other hand, is that power that comes from having charisma and gravitas. It’s the power that enabled Mahatma Gandhi to change a nation and Malala to draw attention to extreme injustice.

I had an interesting example within the context of the aforementioned organisation recently which showed well the use of positional power. In a group setting, an individual with a modicum of positional power gave another individual a dressing down for a minor departure from organisational standards. The departure in question was truly minor and related to a uniform infraction.

Now the organisation in question is one in which rank and structure are important. It is one where compliance with standards and norms can literally be the difference between safety and deleterious physical outcomes. Further, the infraction was legitimate and the subject of the dressing down was indeed failing to follow organisational standards.

However, the situation becomes far more murky when we realise that the individual doing the dressing down was also sporting a similar infraction, and was performing the dressing down in front of dozens of the subject’s colleagues. One assumes the dressing down was intended to make an example of the subject and psychologically embarrass them into compliance.

Putting aside the hypocrisy of criticising an individual for an infraction that you yourself are also committing, the issue here is the use (and I would say abuse) of power. Quite simply, just because someone can use their power against others, doesn’t mean they should.

Leadership, at least leadership that is enduring, just and respected, is about being a servant first, leading by example second, and asserting dominance a very distant third. The best leaders and, I would contend the ones who develop truly enduring power, do so by gaining followership. Not from them come exhortations demanding compliance simply because of the position they hold, rather they create a culture and environment within which their people want to comply.

Of course, some situations demand a departure from niceties and the need for direct orders. Going into battle in the army, dealing with life-threatening situations in an emergency and flying a plane are all examples where there is just cause for a more prescriptive approach towards leadership. But those situations are the exception rather than the norm, and should be regarded as such. In addition, the thing that makes individuals more likely to follow someone giving them an order is a level of respect that comes from a more nuanced application of power.

Power is a funny thing, as Lord Acton so wisely pointed out. Something for anyone in a leadership position to think about.


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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