Tag Archives: power

The one with the no men

So the journey through ‘The West Wing’ continues. For herself it’s the first timem for me it’s the several-th time but every time I watch it I still find little on television past or present to rival it. In an episode we watched recently the President, suffering from a bout of insomnia, consults a therapist. At the end of a two-hour conversation the therapist announces ‘time’s up – we’re done’ and the President, being the most powerful man in the world and all that says,

“I hate to put it this way, but I’m me, and you’re you, and we’re done when I say we’re done.”

Interestingly, rather than yielding to the clear power in the room the therapist pushes back and says aside from his family he’s going to the one person in the world who doesn’t care that he’s talking to the President. Brave man!

It’s interesting watching people in powerful positions and how they treat the people around them and how they expect those people to behave towards them. Hang on a second – the second half of that sentence depends on perception – it could read how they are perceived to expect the people around them to behave towards them…

Have you ever talked to a leader who complained of being surrounded by ‘yes men’? The question I always want to ask (and once did ask) is “do they tell you what you want to hear because of them or because of you?”. Creating an environment where it’s safe to tell truth to power requires both a leader who encourages that behaviour but also people surrounding that leader who are willing to take that courageous step and be a ‘no man’. Of course it’s incumbent on the leader to behave consistently and not shift the goal posts and absolutely essential to the person making the challenge to do it in a manner that is appropriate and allows the leader the space and position to admit being wrong.

I have written about courage (and cowardice) before and having reread those posts this evening I still feel that the work written on ‘Courage as a skill’ is valid to someone considering making this kind of challenge but the thought I keep on coming back to is that whilst there are smart ways to go about being courageous at the end of the day it is a matter of stepping up and doing it rather than letting an opportunity to get the right outcome for the organisation sail past.

If you are that leader (because SOOO many CEOs read this blog) take a moment and ask yourself if anyone ever tells you you’re wrong. If no one ever does look at yourself first before you look at ‘them’ and if you truly believe your behaviour should be engendering more challenge from your team then maybe you need to hire more people willing to tell you that you’re being an idiot….

Having looked in the mirror recently I realise I’m fine….not so much because of my behaviour but just for the long list of people more than happy to inform me of my idiocy 😉


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The one where it’s in your name

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Actually about a year ago in an office about 20 miles from where I am sat, I had a problem with my laptop at work. I had just returned from an overseas trip and it apparently was no longer “part of the domain”. Being a well schooled user of corporate IT I checked the network cable and switched it off and back on again and nothing… At the time I was 25 minutes away from a 1 to 1 with my boss, my phone was ringing and in a delegatory moment I asked our team administrator if she would mind calling IT and asking them to sort it out. In the following minutes whilst on another call I heard the following “but don’t you know who it’s for?” and my blood ran cold.

I like our IT team, they have a real customer service mentality, care about their metrics and deal with everyone fairly and with equity, and so the idea that our well meaning administrator was trying to using the (somewhat questionable) power of my job title to get this sorted really bothered me.

A wise man once said (actually it’s a supplier who was informally coaching me at the time) that every time you refer to your boss or a senior person when discussing a decision or course of action that what you are signalling to the other person is a) I don’t have any power or influence here and b) I am using their proxy to drive this course of action. This really bothered me also. Both in a professional sense but also in terms of my personal pride and view of myself in that organisation. It made me stop and reflect how many times I had opened a sentence with “I’ve been speaking to Clare and…” or “Clare and I have discussed this and…” thus signalling I was the monkey and Clare was the organ grinder.

I wrote a while ago about the different forms of power (blog here) and whilst hierarchical power works, in light of this comment from my coach it always felt to me like admitting defeat “I can’t win this argument on logic or reason so I’m just going to use rank”

So park me and the reflections for a moment and consider this:

How many times do people you work with in your organisation making emphatic reference to a senior person when trying to make a point?

Stop and think about it…

It’s a lot isn’t it?

Having asked myself the same question some time ago I embarked on a piece of informal research (or as some may call it – trying to get my own way) when something I was trying to achieve was thwarted or struck down with a ‘senior person reference’ and my findings showed there were roughly four realities behind the ‘senior person reference’:

1. The senior person was against my course of action and had empowered a member of their team to manage this with me

2. The senior person had asked some questions around the course of action and wanted to explore it more to understand the purpose. This had been misunderstood as not wanting it and the misunderstanding was driving the subsequent conversation

3. The senior person had made a cursory comment about the course of action but their team member had a strong view which was being backed by the cursory comment.

4. The senior person had no view, had not been part of the discussion and could go either way on the issue

Fortunately for our organisation (although not necessarily for my objectives!) the majority of the references fell into item number 1 and required a trip to the drawing board. However on the odd occasion that the others on the list snuck out, it was very interesting to try and resolve the issue and also understand the dynamics that were driving the behaviour.

So I will leave you with a few questions, which if this gets commented on are actual questions, if it doesn’t then of course I completely intended them to be rhetorical:

How often and how severely have you come up against numbers 2, 3 & 4?

What are the context/behaviours you think may drive that?

And finally, what is being done in your name? (that’s definitely rhetorical!)


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The one where it’s about courage

I read a piece in the Washington Post yesterday which talked about outgoing US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates and a speech he made to the US Naval Academy graduation ceremony at Annapolis, Maryland. If you want to read a larger excerpt then it’s here but the part that really caught my attention was this:

“A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage. The courage to chart a new course, the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular, the courage to stand alone, the courage to act, the courage as a military officer to “speak truth to power.”

In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics. You have learned a lot about that. But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, “This is wrong” or “I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.” Don’t kid yourself — that takes real courage”

When someone says the word courage to me I always think of what you could term “big match” courage, most typified by a military style courage, the stuff that wins Victoria Crosses or Military Medals – the taking of hills, the rescuing of comrades under fire but if you consider courage in other forms you could cite numerous examples: Rosa Parks keeping her seat, Nelson Mandela forgiving the prison guards, Rosalind Franklin defying gender segregation to make scientific history, and the list could go on [Read @ThinkingFox’s blog from this morning for more great examples]

However, the point that Gates so eloquently makes and that which is probably most relevant in an organisational context is being able to ‘speak truth to power’ in other words, how not to be a ‘yes man’. But (and there has to be a but) more pertinently in an organisational context, how to avoid being a yes person WITHOUT being on the receiving end of a P45 or sent to the proverbial “Russian Front”

Harvard Business Review ran a piece in 2007 entitled “Courage as a Skill” and in it Kathleen Reardon talks about how this form of moral courage isn’t actually what is effective in organisations. She goes on to define a concept called the “courage calculation” or more simply put the intelligent and planned taking of calculated risk. Her calculation involves considering goals, determining importance, understanding the power dynamics and influencing them in your favour, judging the risk vs. reward (or as my boss used to term it “is it a hill to die on?”), timing (not just the secret of comedy) and understanding your plan B (check canopy etc)

From personal experience, of taking risks and having read this article and discussed it with various groups I’ve worked with in recent years, it’s not an easy thing, even with all the prep in the world. All the thinking in the world won’t control your pulse, the cold sweat and the dryness of mouth you could well experience in having one of these conversations but the feeling afterwards? Amazing! Tall buildings? Single Bounds? CHECK

I am now further along the process of interviewing people from my Masters dissertation (you remember, the whole reason for setting this blog up) and what’s interesting in considering corporate entrepreneurs is how consistent risk taking seems to be as a trait (so far). What’s also interesting and maybe more defining is how often the risk isn’t this thought through calculated form of risk but actually more needs driven almost a personal imperative. It seems that for some of them the thought of not telling truth to power and getting their idea/plan/opinion/strategy out there is far scarier and more damaging than the outcomes that would cause most of us to back away…

Whichever form of courage you see (and you will see it in everyday life) or have the most respect for, there is a line from Robert Frost that always seems to run through my head when these situations arise either for me or around me in organisational life and it seems as good as place as any to close:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

and that has made all the difference”


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The one where it’s about power

They say absolute power corrupts absolutely…

French & Raven (1959) defined five different types of power. What follows is my take on their five:

  • Positional Power – the one with the most stripes wins
  • Referent Power – the power of some people to draw others to them (to me most akin to charisma)
  • Expert Power – the one who knows how to work it has power (see also I.T. people)
  • Reward Power – the one with the carrot has the power
  • Coercive Power – the one with the stick has the power

What’s interesting, to me at least, is that you see these forms of power play out in day to day life from a very early age. Think of the school playground, the cool kid, the one who’s good at football, I would say the one with the best toy but now it’s probably the one with the best phone/gadget. As adults it’s part of work, friendship and relationships and if you stop and pay attention you will see people exercising different forms of power with varying degrees of success all the time.

Power is absolutely part of our lives and I think it was Uncle Ben (in Spiderman, not the one on the rice packet) who said “with great power comes great responsibility”…

One of the companies I worked for had a very charismatic CEO who despite having ‘all the chips’ in terms of positional power, lead far more based on his referent power. For the sake of ease let’s call him Robert (great name BTW). One of the other directors was fond of saying in meetings “I don’t want to have to remind you I am a director of this business” which was usually met with obedient faux nodding and at least one mutter of “Robert never has to remind us”. What always amazed me about the CEO was his ability even when kicking the crap out of me was a) to seem respectful to me as a person and b) to leave me motivated to solve the problem

It seems to me (and there is no science in this) that there is a defined link between self confidence/security and the use or misuse of power i.e. those who are confident in context (whether that be as an employee, friend or partner) are the ones who exercise it best. This begs the question was the Director of my former employer merely underdeveloped in referent power so had to rely on positional power OR insecure enough that he felt the need to assert that positional power OR both? (*head spins)

In reflecting on myself (as I am prone to do from time to time) I realise that like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. If I were to sit with a pad and some time I would imagine I could come up with a list of where me exercising power has had a positive effect on others whether that be in support, challenge, motivation, inspiration (or perspiration) etc and conversely (whether through good or bad intention) I have had a negative effect.

Alexander Pope said “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” so to close what feels like a rather rambling post, hopefully the knowledge shared here (safely thank you Mr Pope) has a similar impact for you as it did for me with respect to power – turning unconscious incompetence into conscious incompetence (and you never know one day we could all be competent, or maybe you already are!)

French, J.R.P., & Raven, B. (1959). ‘The bases of social power,’ in D. Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power.


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