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Real power means knowing what people value and how to access it

Using your power to get more of what you value might lead to personal gain, but it’s the road to a poor leadership reputation, explains Dr Karen Morley

By | Karen Morley |

According to legal academic Mary Anne Kenny, “The personal powers of the Australian immigration minister to grant or cancel visas are so broad and powerful, they’ve been described as ‘god-like’.”

She was commenting in relation to the controversial Novak Djokovic court case, noting that Alex Hawke’s discretionary powers have become increasingly wide-ranging over the 120 years since Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was first passed.

The pandemic has certainly increased our familiarity with wide-ranging governmental powers: governments in most countries have increased control over our lives to the comfort of some and the dismay of others.

Power of leading

This experience provides a fascinating lens from which to consider how leaders use their power. That’s a good thing because the abuse of power significantly interferes with engagement at work and is a major contributor to the Great Resignation.

At its worst, those leaders who are power-hungry and abuse their status and position to serve their own ends create a living hell for those in their orbit. We could do with less of that.

On the other hand, some of the leaders I coach feel uncomfortable about power – their rejection of the power-hungry approach has a lot to do with this. Some of them struggle so much with how to be ‘powerful’ that they over-correct and limit their own leadership authority.

How do we get a better balance and a healthier relationship with power?

By knowing what people value and helping them to access it, according to Harvard Business School Professor Julie Battilana and Rotman School of Management Professor Tiziana Casciaro, who bust some power myths in their book Power, for All.

Busting myths about power

  1. We generally believe that power is something someone possesses. It’s not – it’s always relative to the relationship you are in. Both the immigration minister and Djokovic wield power, although the sources are different. Even with a legal basis for a decision, there is still discretion as to how it is interpreted, there are still choices to be made that will impact not just who wins and who loses, but also what happens to their reputations in the process.

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