“Okay, You’re the Boss.”

(from the L.E.T. book)

cost of using authoritarian power in leadership trainingWhat power does to leaders who use it is a topic seldom discussed in books and articles about management and leadership. Yet I am convinced that power hurts the one that uses it as much as those on whom it is used. If more leaders understood this, most of them would be dissuaded from using power [and control] in their relationships.

The Cost of Time

Because power generates so much resistance in people and provokes them into challenging leaders who use it, it is understandable why leaders must spend a great amount of time and effort dealing with such reactions. Yet leaders often defend their use of power on the grounds that it takes less time than other nonpower methods of problem-solving or conflict resolution. This is a half-truth. While the act of making a Method I decision can take less time than a group decision, inordinate amounts of time are often required to achieve acceptance of a decision made unilaterally. The president of a company in which I served as a consultant for over a decade made this admission:

“When I was using Method I to resolve all the conflicts, I prided myself on being a person who could make decisions quickly. The trouble was, it often took ten times as long to overcome all the resistance to my decisions as it did to make them. I had to spend too much time ‘selling’ my decisions—getting other people to buy them. In the long run, this consumed a lot of my time.”

I have observed executives taking hours to compose a long and involved memorandum to justify some unilateral decision; they knew full well how much resistance would be generated among the people who were expected to implement the decision.

The Cost of Enforcement

Because people usually have low motivation to implement a decision that is imposed on them—especially one that makes them feel like losers—enforcement of unilateral decisions is difficult as well as time-consuming. Nowhere is this more apparent than in schools, where teachers, based on their own estimates, spend as much as 75 percent of their classroom time enforcing Method I rules made unilaterally by their administrators.

In other organizations many leaders have to play cop, too. When there is little acceptance of a rule or policy, people find all kinds of devious ways to avoid compliance—passive resistance, “forgetting,” lying, or falsifying records. Policing employees makes the cost of Method I high.

The Cost of Alienation

One of the hidden costs for leaders who rely heavily on power is that they become alienated from their group members. Personal relationships with their own people inevitably deteriorate, which explains why so many leaders say they feel “alone at the top.” Two factors are at work. First, group members certainly won’t feel warm toward a leader whom they fear and whose use of power makes them feel hostility. Secondly, leaders who control and coerce with rewards and punishment recognize that if they do develop close relationships with any of their group members they might be accused of “playing favorites.” To avoid this, authoritarian leaders usually make it a rule never to get too close to their people, which in the military is termed “getting buddy-buddy.”

No wonder authoritarian leaders in organizations have so few close friendships with the people who work for them. This is an unfortunate price to pay for being in a leadership position—one of the hidden costs of using power.

The Cost of Stress

It is a widely accepted idea that executives and administrators find their jobs stressful—often damaging to their physical and mental health. We are led to believe that being a leader invariably brings tension, anxiety, and worry. And the inevitable price of leadership, so we are told, is high blood pressure, a heart attack, an ulcer, or alcoholism. Could it be that high stress so often goes with leadership not because of the responsibilities of the leader’s unique position but because most leaders use power? Could power make its users “sick”?

A strong case can be made for the validity of that notion. Because people who use power in their relationships must constantly maintain a high level of personal vigilance, for a variety of reasons: they must vigorously enforce the rules they impose on others; they often feel they must be wary of people acquiring more power than themselves; they need to be suspicious of people who might undermine their “authority”; and, because people usually are not completely honest with those who hold the power, leaders probably grow to distrust others.

These would be sufficient producers of stress and tension for leaders, but there are others. Using power—winning at the expense of others losing—usually produces guilt. Then there is anxiety over how and when the losers might retaliate. Also, leaders who use power often get locked into a perpetual search to acquire even more power—they learn to play the “power game” or they become “power hungry.” Perhaps these are the consequences of power Lord Acton had in mind when he wrote: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

My own experience as a consultant and counselor to hundreds of leaders convinces me that those who play the power game create their own “psychological hell” of distrust, suspicion, paranoia, vigilance, tension, guilt, and anxiety. By using power, they manufacture their own “sickness,” physical and mental.

The Cost of Diminishing Influence

Contrary to the common belief that the acquisition of power gives a leader more influence, power actually makes a leader lose influence over group members. To understand this paradox, one must remember that in the English language one word, “authority,” is used for two entirely different concepts:

1. Authority derived from knowledge, experience, expertise, training.

2. Authority derived from the power to reward and punish in order to enforce obedience.

Retaliatory behavior is not uncommon when leaders resort to power (or “pull rank,” as it is called in the military).

Have you ever observed employees responding even to a legitimated influence attempt with such remarks as:

  • “Whatever you say, boss.”
  • “Yes, ma’am, if you say so.”
  • “You’re the boss.”
  • “Right away, sir.”

To summarize, leaders have far more influence on their team members when they avoid the use of their power to coerce compliance with their solutions or decisions.


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