“The last thing I want is to be perceived as a power-monger.” That was what one high-ranking executive recently told me, and the sentiment among top leaders is common. The executive who embezzles money, curries favor with bribes, or gets caught in sordid affairs makes headlines and is justly derided. But our 10-year longitudinal study revealed that the paralyzed executive is just as dangerous, and likely more common.
We conducted more than 2,700 interviews with more than 100 newly transitioned executives, and while the data warned against the allure of using power for self-interest, we saw the greater challenge of power wasn’t exploiting it, but abdicating it.
In an effort to create egalitarianism, to make direct reports feel valued and included, and to avoid risks associated with making tough calls, these leaders struggled to exercise power. 57% found decisions more complicated and risky than they expected, while 61% said
wanted more of their time than they could give, yet felt guilty saying no because they didn’t want to appear inaccessible. Frozen in a need to please or be liked, or in fearful avoidance of catastrophic error, these leaders effectively felt powerless: an astounding 60% of our participants struggled with the fact that people ascribed more power to them than they actually believed they had. Nearly half our respondents indicated believing the power accompanying their jobs was insufficient to execute the objectives with which they were charged.
At some point, probably every executive has lamented, “How is it I have all these resources, and I still can’t make anything happen?” We frequently hear this from new executives. And yet such leaders are often guilty of abdicating the power that they do have. Of the many abdications of power we isolated, we identified four particularly recurring and destructive ones:
Paralysis is one of the most widespread forms of abdication, and can have crippling effects on an organization. One executive bore the nickname “the waffle” because of his inability to stick to a decision. He was frequently susceptible to the “last one in” phenomenon – the last person in his office swayed him toward their views. Regardless of the data or support he amassed, he never declared a final choice, leaving behind confusion about whether a decision had been made. The team quickly learned this lack of clarity worked to their advantage. Absent any evidence a decision had been finalized, they could interpret meeting outcomes consistent with their views. The risk was minimal because they could always claim it’s what they understood “his” decision to be.
Over-inclusion also inhibited leaders’ decisiveness. Fearful leaders delude themselves thinking the way to disperse risk is by getting lots of people involved. While including those who must live with a decision’s consequences is important, over-including people at the expense of action isn’t consensus-building, it’s hiding. Many respondents pointed with exasperation to this challenge among executive ranks. One complained, “The number of people who expect to have a say in decisions is ridiculous. I spend more time building false consensus rather than increasing quality of the decision. I thought I would have more authority than I do.” Newly appointed executives must have thick skin to withstand the inevitable hostility that comes with unpopular decisions. Avoiding it doesn’t disperse risk, it heightens it.
Accommodation is pandering to the agendas of others at the expense of a greater good. Yes, people feel deep ownership when they have greater control over the direction of their projects — but that kind of empowerment should never come at the expense of a broader organizational agenda. Senior leaders can shape that strategic direction while still leaving plenty of room for others to make choices that translate the vision into action. Doling out “yeses” to resource requests for individuals’ agendas “so they feel ownership” is not empowerment, it’s abandonment. Narrowing priorities and focus to strengthen execution is one of an executive’s greatest unifying contributions. When the need to say “yes” overpowers the courage to say “no,” it fragments organizations, and results in the final form of abdication.
Tolerating poor performance is the final major pattern we noticed, and unfortunately, in organizations where people are confused by too many competing priorities and grappling with poorly allocated resources, there’s a lot of poor performance to observe. Once people conclude the plan can’t be taken seriously because the priorities change by the day, their commitment to drive the strategy is diluted, and results falter. To avoid exposing their own hypocrisy, the executive who set the mayhem in motion can’t call the question on the performance free-fall, so must tolerate it. Paradoxically, doling out too many yeses serves to exterminate the very ownership an executive sought to strengthen and leads the splintered organization into the performance pitfall they so desperately believed they were avoiding.
Power is an essential asset of executive roles. It is the currency that ensures a leader’s legacy. It can right organizational injustices, nurture promising talent, and drive great achievements. It requires careful stewardship, yes, but the way to make good things happen is by embracing your influence, not fearing it.