Not Everything is Leadership – Part 1 – Power Wielding Vs Referent Power

Imagine for a moment you are standing by the side of your house and doing some work on it. Your Neighbor Bob comes over to see how you are doing. As Bob approaches you say: “Hi Bob, can you do me a favor?” “Sure” Bob replies. “Can you hand me that hammer in the toolbox?” You ask. Bob reaches down and pulls out a small jeweler’s screwdriver, the kind jewelers use to repair a watch and hands it to you. “Bob,” you say, I asked you for a hammer. Bob replies, “This is a hammer!”

Welcome to the world of leadership studies where, by some counts, there are over 300 different definitions of leadership. Sound confusing? It is. Imagine a toolbox filled with 300 different tools all labeled “hammer”. How can this be? Because leadership may be one of the most powerful and consuming words in our dictionary and is used categorize every human interaction, deed, assertive thought or business function when in fact it may very well be something else. Why is that? Leadership scholar John Gardner said it best “Leadership is such a gripping subject that once it is given center stage it draws attention away from everything else.”

The simple fact remains that if we have no clarity about the nature or purpose of leadership, then how can we choose to use the capability leadership provides? How many times do we hear in the news that what this country needs, what this industry needs, what this company needs is strong leadership? But what does strong leadership really mean? Are we speaking about Power as authority; command and control; detailed management; strength of character; take charge persona or a collaborative movement for change? Moreover, which of these ideas are we willing to accept as the kind of solution to our most challenging issues?

If you were to choose power or authority, my advice is, be careful. There are different types of power and as the patriarch of leadership thought in America James MacGregor Burns writes in his 1978 intellectual blockbuster LEADERSHIP “power wielding is never leadership.” Power wielding is when someone acts primarily with self-interest in mind whether or not the purposes of the followers are realized writes Burns. We have witnessed this notion of power as a select few on Wall Street suffered the disdain of the populace having crossed the line between sensible risk taking to narcissistic self-interest, power wielders short and simple.

Yet power is an essential part of leadership. Power is a relationship, writes Burns, and perhaps its more relevant state is better described in the idea of an enhanced or shared referent power. Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander describe referent power as when one person wishes to establish or maintain a satisfying self defining relationship where the reward to the person in these instances is not so much a matter of gaining social recognition or monetary rewards as of establishing his self-identity and confirming the notion of the sort of person he or she sees himself or herself to be. From this author’s perspective an enhanced or shared referent power is when each person in a transformational leadership relationship establish and maintain not only a self defining relationship but a relationship with each member where they themselves become transformed by their united actions.

One of the most notable shifts in the idea and concept of leadership in the 21st century is a significant movement towards leadership as an influence relationship where diverse groups of people exert a collaborative force to make significant change. Consider the words of Harvard Professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George, “their approach to leadership is entirely different … They don’t care about position, power or status or organizational hierarchy, or even having followers. Instead, they are superb networkers who find collaborators to create opportunities and businesses. They are on line 24/7 always networking, always in touch.” For these emerging super-networkers leadership becomes an interlocking network of relationships where people work together to make significant change. For them–leadership is what people do together!

Dr. John Dentico works with organizations that want to develop leadership capacity at every level. He is the creator of the LeadSimm leadership development simulation method. He writes about leadership, strategic thinking and simulation learning. Your comments are appreciated at [].

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