Leadership and power

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 1 August 2000



Lloyd, B. (2000), "Leadership and power", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 21 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/lodj.2000.02221eab.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Leadership and power

Leadership and power

Bruce LloydPrincipal Lecturer in Strategy at South Bank University, London, UK in discussion withGerry GriffinDirector of Burson-Marsteller and author of the recent book The Power Game, Capstone (1999)

BLCould you start by outlining the core message of your new book?

GGI set out to try to make explicit what most people are aware of implicitly about power. Quite often power is subliminal, or covert. I wanted to look at something that I believed was at the centre of what makes business happen, and what drives business; but it is not talked about. It is all too often a taboo subject. In fact, I found very few management books dealt with power explicitly. One of my main motivations was a comment of one of my organisational behaviour professors. He said that we don't really teach power that much at LBS (London Business School); it is a hard, messy subject that dovetails into too many other disciplines. It is not a neat subject to teach. In addition, it can easily be both controversial and political. Perhaps the reason why it is such a controversial subject is that some of the most conspicuous manifest ions of power originate in the behaviour of particularly dubious individuals. But the behaviour of these individuals cannot be allowed to lead us to the conclusion that power is a bad thing. What I am trying to do in the book is make explicit that which is hidden. I am interested in demystification. I don't like mystification, which is, of course, one of the gambits you find in a power game, where people cover something up in order to do something else. Then finally, I was trying to transpose into a business context some of the things that have been going on in other disciplines – such as critical theory. One of my heroes is Michel Foucault, who spent much of his work exploring "what power was really all about". His work is difficult, even arid; but he looks at power in the context of prisons, hospitals and sexuality, as well as many other areas. In my view he should go down as one of the most formidable thinkers of the twentieth century, although, at the present time, he is not that popular. In some ways, he is too controversial to be easily embraced and, in addition, his work is not easy to embrace anyway. To recap. I had two basic objectives: first to make explicit the nature of power in a corporate environment; second, to explain some of the issues around the way in which organisations work in practice.

It is also, perhaps, worth mentioning that the book itself went through various stages. Originally it was closer to being a book, rather than a manual or workbook. Then I had a powerful experience after reflecting on a workshop I had run in Brussels for executives from major global corporations, around the ideas from the book, and this resulted in the book becoming much more tactical and practical. Most people want power in an organisation in order to use it more effectively. But then you run the risk of competing with books like How to Win Friends and Influence People. So I tried to point out how you could subvert power games. The book was as much about how you can effectively challenge power as about how you can get more of it for yourself. In that way I am sitting on the fence. I want to see balance in organisations and the book is designed to be of use to people who are, inevitably, caught up in one form of power game or another. But I am certainly not arguing that it is by any means the last word on the subject.

BLSo how do you see the link between power and leadership?

GGLeaders are people who have accrued a lot of power; they are at the top of the pyramid. Leaders will have had to have risen through the organisation, or some other organisation, in order to have got to the top. And over that time they will have found their ideas and methods legitimised a number of times. In order for this to happen they have to mirror back the aspirations of those who can provide that legitimation. The leader both has to reinforce existing prejudices and, particularly if they are any good, will try to break some of those prejudices as well. This is the double level within which leaders have to be able to describe a vision around which people can gather. It is the vision that will bind people into the situation. Leaders are also practised in the way that they use power. It is also important how they use power and there is probably another book to be written that focuses on why some people appear to be driven by the need for power. (And, of course, at this point we are not discussing what they use the power to achieve.) The leader is the person who has been legitimised and then, when they get to their position of power, they have to be able to turn round and challenge the legitimisation process. But having the basic thesis, or vision, is just the first step; it then has to be combined with the ability to achieve results in a proper fashion. You need to be able to describe the roles and you need to be able to pull the right levers. Perhaps it is a paradox that, empirically, leaders themselves often feel that they are quite powerless and isolated. This is a very interesting issue. Why does that happen? If you go back to Jeremy Bentham's work and that of others, who argue that the leader does have to be isolated, the leader is the one standing apart. The leader is the one standing behind the light. The space between the leader and the workforce is very important to the exercise of power. Without that distance, power will not operate. If the leader is "of the people" then he/she cannot lead them. There does need to be space for the exercise of power. Without that space, there is no opportunity for a relationship.

BLBut how do you reconcile that point about space with a leader like Gandhi? Surely his power came through his ability to be seen to be "a man of the people".

GGPerhaps you need to separate out the popular view of Gandhi from the reality. When he was in South Africa he was probably at his most powerful and there he did separate himself to a significant extent. His followers were much more disciplined then. He had many more problems in India and he did distance himself from his family and his wife.

BLAnother example might be Field Marshal Montgomery in the Second World War. Surely he built his reputation, to a considerable extent, on at least giving the impression that he was "one of the men"?

GGI am not trying to argue that people in ivory towers are better leaders. On the contrary I would strongly argue that you do need to be closely connected to your followers, if you are to be an effective leader. You do need to make connection, but I would argue that you need distance too.

Machiavelli revisited

BLGoing back to your initial comments, do you consider the book to be, in essence, an updating and rewriting of Machiavelli?

GGFor a start that would be a very presumptuous ambition. Machiavelli was a great thinker and writer. What I would recognise was that there are a number of tools available today that were not around in his day. For example, the whole notion of psychology, and the role of the subconscious, was not known about in his day. In general things were dealt with more visibly and physically. In that sense, perhaps, it is an updating. But there is a qualitative difference too. There has also been a shift from static notions to more dynamic notions, in the way we see the world today.

For the most part Machiavelli would probably find it as relevant to operate in, and write about, this century as any other. However, some things are different. For example, people see themselves more as individuals today, rather than being part of a wider collective, which was the case in his day, and this has ramifications for the way power operates in practice. My book tries to incorporate these issues in a way that makes the issues more relevant to the world in which we operate today. People think that in this empowered age we are all more powerful and, I believe, this is not the case.

BLIt is certainly true that we would be using a different language to discuss some of the issues around power compared with the time of Machiavelli.

GGI would be the first to agree that language constructs reality, and there is a very different world today.

BLMachiavelli was interpreting and reflecting on the situation as he saw it then, which involved what we would now recognise as some enormous abuses of power. I believe he was probably a subversive revolutionary, who was demonstrating how power was abused by describing how it was used. He would never have survived if he had written a book that was overtly about the abuse of power. In some ways, I feel that point applies to your book too. You seem to be arguing that the only way you can control the abuse of power is through encouraging other people both to challenge those who have it and try to amass as much of it as possible for oneself. The power game or power struggle is at the centre of organisational life as we know it and we need to, in essence, develop as many sources of countervailing power as possible because in the end no one can be trusted with it.

GGPerhaps I had more in common with Machiavelli than I originally thought! Certainly to publish one's first book it is necessary to operate within a very similar frame of reference to that of Machiavelli. The thing that sells books, apparently, is to tell the reader something that they can use to further their own personal situation. But I am not really interested in that per se. But there is something in the way that we all operate that requires us to learn how to gain and use power. However, my personal interest is much more how it can be subverted. The main parallel between my book and Machiavelli is that we are both attempting to make more explicit the issues that surround the use and abuse of power.

BLI believe the management literature on the subject of power seems to me to be split into two. There are those books that are directly about: How to get it? How to keep it? How to use it? All primarily focused on that process to maximise your own personal benefit. Then there are books that continually refer to issues around responsibility and values. These books focus on a wider agenda than the previous group which appears to be obsessed with the personal focus for power. I felt your book fell more into the first category than the second.

GGWhen I was undertaking my research, I could not find many good books on power. There was one, Power: A Radical View, by S. Lucas in the early 1970s and another by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing Power in Organizations, which I did not feel went into the subject very effectively.The messy thing about power is that it involves both sides. There is no way that anyone can advance their personal agenda without some reference to the core values of the wider group, unfortunately.

BLWhy unfortunately?

GGUnfortunately, because that is the only way you can push power ahead. Anyone concerned with using power has to make sure that they make all the appropriate references to justice and freedom. Books about the broader issues can only discuss power in the context of their being a pay-off for the individual.

BLYou can consider the subject the other way round by saying that, if those with power today are not driven by a sensitivity to the values of the wider agenda, they will be on a path to inevitable self-destruction.

GGRight. It won't work. It will just be seen as a series of manoeuvres.

Power and values

BLYes. But the people in the middle of an organisation where those games are being played are not conscious of that slippery slope because their approach to power has never been properly grounded in the wider perspective of values. The main contentious issue I would have over the content of your book is around the fact that apparently the words "values" and "responsibility" do not merit a mention in the index, or in the book itself.

GGBut I would argue that the book is fundamentally about the use of values. That is my central thesis.

BLBut your book gave me the impression that the only thing that was important was to maximise your own power base as an individual. I didn't get the impression that you were concerned about how power was used, except to further an individual's own self-interest.

GGBut it won't work on that basis. You cannot expect to be a leader if you say that you want power in order to further your own ends at the expense of others. You have to say that you want to be a leader because you want to do things that in the end other people agree with; that is the only way you can become powerful.

BLAnd you have to believe in what you are saying, or it will show, and then you will be in real trouble. Those people who wave a values-driven flag have to be very careful that they live up to their values, or they could easily find themselves worse off than they would have been otherwise.

GGI agree. But I don't believe it is necessary for people to believe in a value for it to work for them. Take Greenpeace's position on the environment – they don't necessarily need to care about the environment to do what they are doing.

BLPerhaps not! But it would seriously undermine Greenpeace's credibility, and public support, if we did not believe that they were genuinely concerned for the environment. No one would argue that you get a 100 per cent/0 per cent split in one direction or another. All we can explore is what helps to make leadership more effective and what doesn't. Integrity must help, surely.

GGI am not sure that Greenpeace's position on genetically modified foods really reflects their fundamental beliefs; it just happens to be a good focus that enables them to raise their profile through getting plenty of publicity. They must know that the over whelming scientific evidence does not support the scare tactics they are using today.

BLI believe the problem here is that there is an increasing general skepticism over what we really know about various aspects of our lives. Whether it is over damage from pollution and smoking; or BSE, or Chernobyl, or the Millennium Bug. Together all these examples are reflecting an increasing number of areas where society as a whole seems to be saying to science ... "you need to take more notice of the long-term consequences, or side-effects, of your developments". We no longer feel able to give science a "blank cheque" to solve all our problems, especially if the science is closely linked to powerful short-term focused commercial interests. I feel this is different from the 1960s, when we felt much more optimistic that "science could solve all our problems". Now the view seems to be that, unless we are very careful, science will create as many problems for society as it solves. Although I suppose you could argue that was useful as some people believe that the biggest threat to society is boredom!

But a significant part of the problem over power is the extent to which it is used to produce short-term gains for one group at the expense of another over the long term. As a result the more some people focus on short-term returns, the more others will want to challenge that agenda in the interests of the long term. This conclusion is part of the climate that is driving the power/values agenda, and that reflects the fact that those concerned with power are not sufficiently values driven in the first place. Hence, they rarely take sufficient notice of long-term issues. If the values agenda were well founded in those with power there would not be half as many conflicts in the world.

GGIn the commercial world that priority is not helped by the increasing focus of institutional investors on the short-term performance of their funds.

Short-term or long-term

BLOverall, I believe you now have three forces acting together increasing the pressure for short-termism. First there are the financial pressures we have just mentioned; then there are the political pressures that seem to be increasingly concerned with managing the economy on the basis of yesterday's headline, rather than developing strategies for the next decade; and finally there are pressures from the media, who seem to be almost totally preoccupied with today's headline. Together these are very fertile breeding grounds for short-termism, which, in turn, sets the agenda for the power struggles that we see around us every day.

GGThat is true. But if you don't get to the table in the short term you won't have a long term.

BLYes. But I felt your book was designed more to help us play this short-term game, without recognising the damage the game can create over the long term.

GGMy intention was to try to give a balanced view; not to encourage short-termism, or to encourage people to push their own agendas. My tactic was to encourage power situations to be more explicit, more open, so that people were in a better position to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to be in, or out of, a particular situation. At the very least, I wanted to identify a way to cut through a lot of the mystification about the subject of power. In my view most of the talk about values is an attempt to hide powerful personal agendas. And I am not being cynical when I come to that conclusion. It is just a fact of life. But I am not trying to have the last word on the subject. All I wanted to do was to try to stimulate debate on what I consider to be the very important subject of power. What is it? And how is it used? For example, over 16 years, Professor John Hunt has done one-to-one interviews with chief executives on the executive programme at LBS. And year-in-year-out, over that period, he has found that the factor that has been the most significant force behind these individuals has been the exercise of power, irrespective of gender, or even star sign! It is that distinction that I am trying to challenge. If my book can help reduce this gap by making the issues a little more explicit, the whole exercise will have been worthwhile.

Power as energy

BLGoing back to another point in the book, where you use the metaphor of power as energy, or electricity. I agree that power is the ability to make things happen, but it is important to consider in whose interest things are being made to happen. Power, like energy and electricity, is of little value until it is used. If you are just concerned with generating bigger and bigger "energy balls", without at least an equal concern over the use to which these forces are, or can be, put, you are just constructing bigger and bigger volcanoes, waiting to blow their unpredictable tops. The issue of what drives people to do things with such power that they have is much more important than the existence, or not, of the power itself. This brings us back to a point you mentioned earlier, which was the nature of the personal agendas that drive individuals to want power.

GGBut my book was not intended just to show people how they can become more powerful. It can be equally relevant, if not even more, for those who are concerned with subverting power. The use of power in an organisation can be very destructive. My main concern is to make power issues much more explicit. The workshops I have run have demonstrated how useful the techniques outlined can be in giving people the sense that they have more control over their lives.

BLIf we can consider another topic that is very relevant to your theme, namely the whole question of knowledge management in the growing emphasis on the knowledge economy? Generally these ideas are based on a sharing knowledge culture, rather than one where the emphasis is on "knowledge is power". Nearly all the widely used management techniques, such as TQM, benchmarking and learning organisation, are based on the premise of a sharing knowledge culture, and they are very unlikely to work at all well, if at all, in a "knowledge is power" culture. I did not feel that these issues were sufficiently addressed in your book. Power-driven individuals are not likely to be effective managers within this environment. Do you agree?

GGHow often have you heard: "If only we could be less political and work together more effectively, how much better we would be as an organisation"? That is a major problem for many organisations. But organisations can, and do, change. It is a constantly competitive struggle to release the energy and talents of the organisation in its long-term interests. As a management tool I have a problem with knowledge management because it is often used as an excuse to centralise information.

BLIn practice it is likely to be about both centralising and sharing.

GGRedissemination. But if there is an imbalance there will be more going in than coming out.

BLWhich happens if those with power are just concerned with protecting their fiefdom. In those cases the organisation will, sooner or later, have a major problem on its hands.

GGThat often happens with power games between departments in an organisation. For example, you find the IT department doesn't want to share its knowledge base and the organisation is then surprised that things are not working out. As a result the IT department considers itself under even more of a threat, so it then shares even less.

BLBut the responsibility for setting the agenda, that ensures that knowledge and power are effectively shared, rests with the Chief Executive. Yet too rarely do they seem to understand these issues; let alone set an example through their own practice.

GGYou are then back into the core issue of leadership.

Power, fear and trust

BLYes. Management should be driven by the need to pass on what it knows, rather than with playing power games that are all too often the reality. How do you reconcile the power games issues we have been discussing with the need to develop "trust" within an organisation? Is it not the case that a power-driven agenda is more concerned with using fear as the bonding agent, rather than trust?

GGBut the reason why we can have this trust is usually to attempt to stave off some other external threat or challenge. So there is always a mixture of fear and trust. Fear can sometimes make the trust more robust but, I agree, if the trust between two people is based on fear then it is not really trust. Trust is about relationships in the same way as power. For power to be exercised effectively those concerned have to trust those with power because, if they don't, they will be continually seeking ways in which to undermine that power base. By making things more explicit, you are reducing the scope for the abuse of power and hence it can be a useful way to help build trust. Francis Fukuyama's book on Trust is a perceptive and revealing discussion on this subject. But in some ways I prefer to use the word faith rather than trust.

BLBut when I looked at Fukuyama's book on Trust, and most of the other articles and books on this subject, I found an enormous emphasis on the importance of trust, but very little discussion on where it came from. I believe that trust comes from individuals developing a "perceived sense of fairness" as the basis of their relationship. And once you accept that point many other things fall into place.

GGBut does the notion of fairness work in the developing world? If you go into some parts of the world there is no tradition over a sense of fairness.

BLI am not sure about that. Perhaps the developing world is not always explicit about power issues in a language that we understand. I believe most (all?) old societies, whether they were villages, or ancient cities, were held together because different individuals, and different groups, considered that the power relationships within which the society operated were essentially fair. And when that broke down it was largely because of some external influence that changed the subtle checks and balances around the power structures; that created new conflicts between the "haves" and "have nots", however you define them, with the latter no longer feeling that the system that was in operation was being fair to them. The "have nots" then reacted to what they perceived to be an abuse of power. If you are a multinational company operating in a developing country, you need to be dealing with the local community as a stakeholder in a way that they perceive to be fair in the circumstances, or you will quickly find yourself in trouble. The scope for instability is, of course, made much worse if it is believed that the overriding agenda of the "haves" is just to get as much as possible of the share of the cake for themselves, irrespective of the interests of others. If you are just driven by that materialist agenda you are going to quickly find that the "haves" are laid siege to by the "have nots". In a society like the USA there is a powerful overall materialistic agenda, with an increasing gap between the "haves" and "have nots", but if all groups did not, in general, consider that the overall process was reasonable and fair, you would see a lot more conflict. If you believe trust is important, I believe you must be concerned with issues around fairness.

GGIn general I agree. But I don't think you can put these power games aside and pretend they don't exist; or that they are not important. Power is what is driving the organisation to do things and make changes.

BLBut, if people have to work together it is neither easy, nor likely to be effective, if they are continually involved in power struggles or power games. On the other hand, I totally agree that one of the benefits of a book like yours is that it does encourage people to be more explicit about the power relationships that exist within their organisations, which should, in turn, make the organisation more effective. It helps people understand: What is really going on? What are the real agendas that people have within the organisation?

GGI do not advocate that having integrity is better than not having integrity.

BLDespite all the evidence from studies like The Tomorrow's Company, and the book Built to Last?

GGEverything is relative and there is plenty of loyalty, trust and integrity in the Mafia.

BLBut I would argue that an organisation is more likely to be successful over the long term if it is driven by a common set of values, and that there are open, honest, and fair dealings between all the stakeholders that can influence the future success of the organisation. Surely those principles also apply to two people who are working together in such a way that each acknowledges and recognises the interests of the other? That is where the Mafia loses out in the end! The key question is: "What are the conditions that best help people work effectively together?"

GGI generally agree with that analysis and I would argue that my book can help that process by helping to get people to be more open and explicit about the issues of power inside their organisation and inside their own personal agendas. We need to understand the objectives of different stakeholders by an analysis of the payoffs and processes involved. The book can help people understand the agendas of the various parties, but it does show how hard it is to get agreement on objectives to start with. There are no simple answers to these issues. If you think you have found a simple answer, confirmed by some success, it is usually followed by an attack of complacency which then undermines the validity of the original simple answer.

BLCertainly these are all very important issues that need to be much more widely debated and learned from. I am sure your book will help to do this. Thank you.

Related articles