The Three-Horned Dilemma All CEOs Face

The following book excerpts from BECOME: The Five Commitments of Purposeful Leadership, have been lightly modified for clarity.

The most implicit and dominate dogma of leadership is rooted in the ideas of leadership as hierarchy, power, influence, and authority. This dogma presupposes that the leader is competent, even expert, in how things should be done. It assumes that the leader knows how to use people, how to resource things, and how to get things done. In most models, the leader’s power comes from the role and level of their job in the organization: that power comes from above. No wonder this characterization can also inspire fear.

Some, not all, of us buy into this dogma when we enter leadership roles. We are so hungry to accomplish things in our new leadership role that we inadvertently fall into this set of assumptions to make it happen. When we are frustrated by the slowness or the difficulty of leading, we may take shortcuts. For those who don’t believe this dogma, a cocktail of visionary, goal-directed, principled leadership combined with hierarchical leadership secures results.

Power is the capacity to take action. Power means that you have the necessary and requisite authority or decision-making rights to bring together people, information, money, and other materials and make the decision to fund something, invest in something, hire someone, fire someone, say yes and no, say go or no go. In many ways, “power” is not a clear term: the concept is confusing, vague, somewhat complex, and connotes different ideas to different people.

My mentor used to define power as “the ability to poke the future in a different direction.” He really changed my negative perception of power into something that had a comforting charm to it.

The reality I’ve learned over many years is that power is neither positive nor negative, neither good nor bad. It’s how power is used that makes it good or bad, not the power itself. When power is used ethically and fairly, it can be seen as a good thing. Of course, when a leader has the power to make something better and they withhold that power for whatever reason, then a different picture of power comes into play.

There is no question that leaders in any organization must understand that power is an important tool in their toolbox. Leaders must recognize their power, must know how to use it effectively and ethically, and must understand how to augment its positive impacts and diminish its negative impacts.

Although power is an abstract concept, leaders can make it quite real and tangible in a decision. Maybe even more abstract is the idea of distributing power. Power can be distributed across levels, geographies, businesses, functions, and people. Power can come from many sources: position power, expertise power, relationship power, informational power, referent power, coercive power, and reward power.

The exercise of power presents a leader with a three-way dilemma: Do I use my power and authority? Or my personal influence? Or do I create a vision and engage people? While this may seem a false dilemma because most leaders will use all their tools, each “horn” of the dilemma presents different challenges, consequences, and potentially different outcomes. These differences are all the result of how stakeholders react and close the feedback loop on the leader. Interestingly, if you examine the social contract implied in each of the three “horns,” you derive the following:

  • Power and authority may beget compliance.
  • Influence may beget cooperation.
  • Visionary, Purposeful leadership may beget engagement.

Leaders need to make choices on how to get things done based on the culture of the company, the individuals in question, and the challenge in front of them. 

Our research shows that leadership is a reciprocal relationship. Leaders impact stakeholders. Stakeholders engage and impact leaders. The feedback loop continues to hum and create cycles of leadership goodness. Purposeful, principled leadership based on a vision is powerful. Purposeful leadership really means that you’re a leader sometimes and a follower sometimes: The power to get things done is in the relationship and the feedback loop. When you are able to create a collective of leaders guided by a shared vision and set of goals, you are creating a force capable of poking the future in a different direction.

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Power is such a complex topic. It has been written about endlessly by novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, and academics for centuries, and yet it remains mysterious and unknowable. What’s particularly unknowable is how each of us will handle power when we actually have it. How will we handle ourselves? Will we succumb to its obvious temptations? Will we become a cliché? Of all the aspects of leadership, the examination of power is the one that brings to mind how much of leadership mystery is wrapped up in this idea of how each of us manages power. Will we be able to master the moments when temptations spontaneously but systematically challenge us? How will we poke the future?

It’s helpful to periodically conduct a “power probe” in order to get a better handle on what our power is and if how we use it is aligned with our moral compass. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. In your current role, define your power. What decisions can you make without getting permission (this is not the same as informing) from a superior?
  2. In looking back at your leadership history, what have been your most positive “power” practices?
  3. What has been your most negative experience in using your power?
  4. If you were to interview five to seven former direct reports, what three words would they use to describe how you wield power as a leader?
  5. Why do you think you might revert to power as opposed to such positive, purposeful leadership practices as inspiration, empowerment, and inclusion?