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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023


At the heart of leadership is power a fact of life in business. Power is an aspect of social reality that many have tried desperately to remove from organizations.

Making companies smaller, less hierarchical, or more democratic does not rid them of power, it merely changes the way it is used, played, and displayed. No amount of talk about empowering employees can completely erase the existence of power structures.

In my research, I have looked at ways in which women garner and use power in companies. Lessons learned often apply to men as well.

There’s something to be said for looking like you could make other people’s lives difficult. A number of women I’ve met personify Machiavelli’s advice that “one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.”

Machiavelli was often harsh, but there is much to be learned from reading “The Prince.” Fear can be overrated, however. Machiavelli recognized the value of being able to express power in a variety of ways, depending on the situational demands.

Those women who constrain themselves to only the more pleasant power displays find that a significant segment of leadership expression is inaccessible to them. For those women and men who don’t have a commanding look, who lack a voice and physique that shout, “Watch your step with me,” there are other options.

Attorney General Janet Reno has demonstrated her unwillingness to be obsequious even when dealing with the president of the United States. Time magazine quotes a White House official describing Reno: “It just so happens that she’s very, very good and responsible,” so she can be deferential only when she wants to.

You may win a few short-term friends, but you won’t influence people at work by always telling them what you think they want to hear.

The expression of power is important not just in dealing with employees, but with clients or a public audience. In an average one-hour presentation, people listen attentively for about 20 minutes. The rest of the time they may be thinking about lunch or next Saturday’s golf excursion.

Powerful, persuasive expression doesn’t mean being redundant. Important points may be repeated, but the main ingredients are getting to the point, supporting it, summarizing, and concluding. You can let people decide what to remember, or you can do some of the work for them.

Phrases like, “If you don’t remember anything else I’ve said today, remember …” tell people, “Listen to this, it’s important.”

Part of power is knowing when what is said is not what is meant. For every boss who really means it when he or she says, “My door is always open,” there are two who don’t mean it. It’s important to assess whether something is said just for show or whether it is to be taken seriously. Part of power is knowing the language.

It’s also about knowing when not to go with the flow.

A former colleague of mine used to oppose the best of ideas. Almost invariably, he argued vociferously against good suggestions. When conflict was about to break out, he’d say, “OK, maybe I can go along with this plan, but just remember, I wasn’t enthusiastic.”

Each time he acted this way, he was an instant hero. It struck me as manipulative, and one day I asked him why he did it. He didn’t seem surprised that I’d noticed the pattern.

“It works,” he said. “It lets me air my reservations, covers me just in case things don’t work out, and makes everyone feel great when I go along.”

While this is an example of manipulative behavior, it demonstrates that there are ways to increase the value of one’s cooperation. If you give it away too readily, everyone assumes it’s of little value.

Power is rarely predictable. A 55-year-old female marketing vice president who attended one of my seminars told me this is where women lose some ground.

“They allow themselves to be open books,” she said. “You have to be somewhat unpredictable. Otherwise, others can play you like a piano. If you’re always defending one type of issue, or if they know your Achilles heel, you have diminished your own power.”

A significant form of power is knowing the right people. This often means being able to network and infiltrate. The lesson here is that making contacts is less important than making the right ones. And surprisingly, the right ones are not always the people with visible power.

At women’s conferences, I frequently hear speakers enthusiastically advise, “Give everyone your business card. Meet as many people as you can.” This is a waste of energy and it insults a lot of people as you flit like an aimless bee from flower to flower. Besides, it’s unprofessional. Often, the person you think will help you the most has too many people asking.

If you treat everyone with regard, you will fare better in the end.

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Ph.D., is professor of management and organization at USC’s Marshall School of Business. She is the author of “They Don’t Get It, Do They? Communication in the Workplace Closing the Gap Between Women and Men.”

Entrepreneur’s Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact Dan Rabinovitch at (213) 743-2344 with feedback and topic suggestions.

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