Leadership vs. Power: Two contradictory systems of governance?

Steve Jobs, Gandhi, Obama: How did they bring the masses with them? How did they manage to change the world? 
Leadership, that intangible quality, is a decisive asset for a leader. Often confused with power, leadership is as paramount as it is little studied in France. 
So how do leadership and power relate to one another? Are they mutually exclusive? How can we get to the heart of their definitions in order to master one and/or the other?

Steve Jobs, Gandhi, Obama: How did they bring the masses with them? How did they manage to change the world? Leadership, that intangible quality, is a decisive asset for a leader. Often confused with power, leadership is as paramount as it is little studied in France. So how do leadership and power relate to one another? Are they mutually exclusive? How can we get to the heart of their definitions in order to master one and/or the other?


COMPLEX CONCEPTS AND RELATIONS

Leadership: An Intangible Quality

When defining leadership, we often resort to a long checklist of qualities to have, be they basic or magical. For some, leadership means having “emotional intelligence,” for others it equates to “charisma,” and so on.

But merely listing a series of attributes does not get to the essence of such a complex force that is able to change the way a company works, and even the way the world does.

After several decades of careful consideration, our definition is as follows:

Leadership is a system of governance and values founded on:

1 - Cohesion, coming neither through power nor coercion.

2 - Leading by example (being a good model) not from your role or status.

3 - A just cause, whose ideals and objectives are solid and inspired.

4 - Dynamism, after all who would follow a man who always plays it safe?

5 - Emotion: being passionate about what you do and those that follow you – ‘your people.’

 

Power: Any Better Than Tyranny?    

Conversely, power is often – one might think at any rate – well understood. We all know what it is like to exert power, however limited. In reality, everyone has a distinct definition.

For some it’s the use of force, impermissible, brutal even. For others it is an insidious creature which some abuse to the detriment of others. Some, on the other hand think it perfectly legitimate, neutral and necessary for the smooth running of society.

How to explain this large gap in how power is perceived? Why is this concept sometimes very negative, sometimes positive, or at the very least neutral.

The confusion arises from mixing the notion of power with that of the abuse of power. The first, neither good nor bad in and of itself, is potentially a gateway to the second, which is excessive.

Power, whether loved or loathed, exists. It allows mankind to do great things, positive or negative. It can be exercised wisely or in an abusive fashion.

Its different dimensions are what make power a complex notion. And our viewpoint is often skewed by emotions coming from having been subjected to, or having utilized it.

If we zero in on power, and not on its abuses, the concept can without doubt be defined as a sine qua non as it confers on the possessor the right to impose their point of view. If power is legitimate and used in a non-abusive way, the resentment felt will be minor to non-existent. If power is not legitimate, but put to good use we may or may not have the same reaction.

Conflict and damage often comes when the legitimate holder of power disregards the checks on his power, and the slide can be rapid from there to breakdown of communication, resentment and conflict of interest.   

 

Authority vs Legitimacy

In a company, status and function are derived from a certain level of power (potestas). Its legitimacy comes from on high: shareholders give a director the power to run a business, the director names the upper and middle-management, etc. The legitimacy is legal and extrinsic.

Conversely, authority (auctoritas) requires no official status. In a group of friends so and so is the authority on one subject due to their knowledge and charm, and someone else is the authority on another subject. As François Terré* says there exists an authority of heroes, saints and geniuses, which transcends any official designation.

Cicero was against potestas and auctoritas. To be auctor is to suggest, confirm or guarantee. Authority is not the power to command. It is the anthisis of the imperium or the potestas.

 

Power vs Leadership

The concepts of power and leadership are very distinct, diametrically opposed even. Three differences stand out:

1- Power is a force that comes from on high, (from the hierarchy) and goes toward the bottom (top- down), from the strong to the weak. Leadership, on the other hand, comes from lower down (in the hierarchy) and goes towards the top: one is ‘made’ or recognized a leader by one’s group.

2- Power tends to ‘divide and rule’ as the saying goes. If this division is to organize and assign tasks, why not? If this division is to limit all counter-powers, it opens the door to power’s arbitrary exercise, its abuse, and legitimized violence.

Leadership, by contrast is built on the concept of cohesion and tends to ‘unite and rule.’ It includes instead of divides; is not afraid to see people group together as this union is symbolic of everyone pulling together, of diverse values, of a goal that the combined strength of a team allows us to reach.

3 - Power gives orders and instructions, takes no time to listen, deprives itself of the creativity of others except for the execution of orders.

Leadership, on the other hand, consults, listens and builds its authority on this synthesis of work. If work must be assigned and directives given there remains the freedom to express creativity and one’s own identity, to make strong personal contributions, implicitly expressing respect for the added value that each person brings reinforces cohesion, the feeling of belonging to a group, to a team paradoxically varied… but united.

 

Leadership + Power?

A logical and humanistic temptation arising from these analyses might be to employ only leadership. But this would prove difficult since so much of our society is organized around power and it provides the framework for social interactions.

How, for example, can we conceive of an employer/employee relationship without relying on the principle of subordination? That seems difficult, but not impossible if our working lives are instead subject to the “para-subordination” of Jacques Barthélémy, founder of French firm Barthélémy & Associés, specialists in labor law.  This looks necessary if we are to keep in step with the wider changes in society or entertain the aspirations of the internet generation who think in more democratic and decentralized terms.

How, though, can we reconcile leadership and power if the ideas are diametrically opposed?

Must one envision a meeting of two forces (yin and yang) where a subtle equilibrium is the desired goal? Maybe.

But our dearly held belief is that leadership is the more noble, not to say necessary, force. Our conviction is that the hour has come for leadership to take a major place in our lives. Our cherished hope is that the role of power in society will be reduced and the importance of leadership increase. The advent of leadership as a mode of governance has been shaped and made possible by the democratic revolutions in our societies in Western Europe in the 18th century, in Eastern Europe in the 20th century. At the start of the 21st century countries in Africa and the Middle East are joining this historic movement.

But let’s make sure that the 21st century is not only the era of leadership in the lives of people. Work is where people go five days per week. It is time that it became a place of fulfillment and mutual respect founded on leadership rather than power and subordination.

Far from the rigid framework of domination and subordination, the 21st century must become the era of leadership in the workplace.   

* French lawyer and member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques.

 

 

Author: Pierre Lorenceau

Translator: Simon McGeady

 

This article is taken from our monthly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.

 

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Five CEOs who brought companies back from the brink (Part I)

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