Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Encountering power

I recently had the opportunity to work with some colleagues in conceptualizing and refining a new approach to leadership studies and development that they intend to launch as a point of distinction for their college’s student recruitment programs. The goal to increase enrollment was convincingly undergirded with the aspiration to improve students’ learning and better prepare them for the 21st century world they will encounter upon graduation. After review of planning documents, I determined to focus my remarks to this group substantially on the core ideas I advocated in Deeper Learning in Leadership (Roberts, 2007) – Leadership as “conviction in action” and supported by a framework of fostering habits or dispositions of presence, flow and oscillation in students’ lives.

During the question and response time after my remarks, a thoughtful political scientist raised the question of why I had not addressed power as an important dynamic of leadership. I responded in the moment but wasn’t really satisfied with what I said so the question has lingered in my thinking.

Over the years I’ve read untold numbers of leadership books and articles and entered into conversations that recognized power as an important dynamic of leadership. I have also experienced the exercise of power in many and varied forms – coercive, manipulative, challenging, undermining, and facilitative. The advocacy to include power in the conversations about leadership often comes from political scientists with Ron Heifetz and Barbara Kellerman of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government being my favorites.

In my response to the question about power I acknowledged that power is an aspect of leadership that needs to be recognized and I asked the colleague who raised the question to work with others at the college to make sure that the political scientist’s perspective on power is, indeed, included in the leadership studies curriculum they are designing. I went on to say that I still believed that helping students find conviction in their lives and pursue it in ways that allow for authenticity (through presence) was the core of the question, as opposed to focusing on power as a controlling variable in leadership.

Models such as I’ve advocated in leadership as conviction in action, or Greenleaf’s “Servant Leadership,” or the “Social Change Model of Leadership” may seem na├»ve or uninformed among those whose discipline it is to study politics and power. In fact, the models focused on advocating for the common good rather than individualistic benefit may need to focus more on power and how it can be used to advance or undermine compassionate leadership efforts. The reality is that throughout history and in our own times there are those who seek to fulfill their own power hungers and these people have had a profound impact on us all.

On the other hand, the use of power to achieve ends that serve the needs of few to the exclusion of the broader good is quite often a short-gain proposition. History and international dynamics we now see demonstrate that self-serving, divisive or abusive use of power in the name of leadership will ultimately result in decline and failure. By contrast, compassionate leadership that considers the greater good will eventually surface and will defeat power wielding in the end. I propose that focusing on leadership learning that cultivates conviction among today’s students is the long-term strategy that will foster many who see themselves as capable of leadership and will encourage them to stay the course even when power dynamics may not temporarily be in their favor. And, leadership educators need to help those who aspire to leadership to understand power, its positive and negative uses, and to assist students in determining the costs and benefits when they encounter power.

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