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Jeffrey Pfeffer
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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Power: Face it, you need it

Leaders are preoccupied with power because power is an essential component of leadership. So noted the late John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and cabinet secretary in the Lyndon Johnson administration. Getting things done--particularly through and with others--requires influence skills. And, in order to lead both organizational change and effective execution, you need to cultivate the leadership capacity to get your way.

Power skills are valuable because they are, apparently, scarce. Executive coaches consistently tell me that successfully managing organizational dynamics is one of the biggest career challenges confronting otherwise technically talented and interpersonally skilled rising executives. Zia Yusuf, CEO of Streetline and a former senior executive at SAP, noted that without the skills to manage organizational dynamics, people with expert technical knowledge could not create the conditions to make their knowledge actually matter. Yusuf's rise in SAP was fueled by his sensitivity to others' points of view and his willingness not to push for some particular decision when he saw he could not prevail--"to live to fight another day," as he put it. It was also fueled by his position first in an internal strategy unit and then in SAP's ecosystem unit, which permitted him to build relationships throughout an organization that valued using networks to get things done.

It's not surprising, then, that the personal qualities that empower people are also the attributes that make good leaders. But these qualities are not always discussed in a leadership literature that emphasizes coaching-oriented leader-subordinate relationships much more than it focuses on what it takes for leaders to get into powerful positions and then keep them. Obtaining a position where you can influence others and a company's direction requires both will (a drive to do what it takes) and skill (the capability that, when coupled with drive, facilitates effective action). More specifically, the attributes of those who obtain power and rise to leadership positions include:

1. Ambition/Drive. Leaders work hard and are under constant scrutiny, which makes doing their work difficult. Getting to a position of power requires trade-offs. If someone isn't driven to succeed, he or she probably won't. The drive can come from personal background: marketing and networking guru Keith Ferrazzi told my class that his incredible ambition came from wanting to be just as successful as the classmates who would tease him about his working-class background. The drive can come from some personal passion: Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund, travels all over the world helping people start small commercial enterprises that can make a difference in their own lives and the economic development of their communities. The places she travels often don't have luxurious hotels, but this Stanford MBA graduate is willing to do what it takes to help make the world a better place.

2. Energy. If you can work more hours, you can (other things being equal) get more done. You'll demonstrate more commitment to your employer, and thereby increase your chances of getting a raise. Robert Moses, the legendary New York parks commissioner, was known for his physical energy. He would swim far out into the ocean even into his 70s. Energy inspires those around you to expend more too. Energy--sheer physical, kinetic energy--helps in obtaining and maintaining power.

3. Focus. The sun's rays, focused through a magnifying glass, can light grass on fire. Unfocused, the grass is warm but not lit. Gary Loveman, CEO of Harrah's Entertainment, often asks managers if they can recite the Ten Commandments. His point: ten is a large number, five is easier. One of the first things he did when he arrived as COO at Harrah's in 1998 was to reduce the scope of people's jobs--not because he lacked confidence in them, but because he recognized that unfocused efforts produced mediocrity. Ability put against a small set of critical, high-impact issues could produce outstanding results. That same ability, when applied to a larger and more diffuse set of issues, produced much less.

4. Self-knowledge. As someone ascends the career ladder or switches employers, the specific things he or she needs to do to be successful change. Also, part of strategy is finding the optimum setting to deploy strengths and minimize the effects of weaknesses, and this is just as true for an individual as it is for a business. Knowing one's strengths and weaknesses is important. The practical problem is that people invariably tend to think of themselves as being above average on positive traits, and also often don't know what they don't know. So get some objective assessments and don't be defensive about weaknesses. They are just opportunities for improvement.

5. Confidence. Emotions are contagious. Walk down an airline corridor smiling, and watch others smile back. That's also true for confidence. If you are confident, others are more likely to follow you. If you exude fear or uncertainty, others will not risk putting their own careers and efforts in your service. Gaining power entails reducing others' uncertainty--not misleading them, but giving them the motivation to continue trying for success. As Andy Grove, former Intel CEO, put it: you have to be able to bolster your own spirits to inspire the efforts of others, even if you understand that you really don't know what you are doing.

6. Putting yourself in another's place. Empathic understanding is crucial for obtaining power. How can you follow the maxim of negotiating over interests rather than positions if you can't figure out what others' interests are? How can you know how to motivate people, how to anticipate their reactions to your proposals, how to get them to change, if you don't know where they are coming from? Research by University of Texas psychologist William Ickes shows the importance of empathic understanding in building influence. People mostly assess things in terms of what's in it for them. Understanding the rewards and assessments they face, the problems they confront, and their goals will help predict their reactions to decisions and ideas.

7. The willingness to tolerate conflict. Most people are conflict averse. Those that aren't have an advantage--both in negotiations and in the quest for power. People will back down when confronted with an angry countenance. White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is widely known for his volcanic temper, used to great effect in getting his way. Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor, was also known as someone who never shrank from a fight. In our efforts to appear "nice" and to get along, we often underestimate the effectiveness of displaying anger, of fighting hard for what we believe in and of forgetting, for a moment, about always pleasing everyone.

I'm sure this list leaves off many important qualities. But it is a list focused on obtaining power--something essential if leaders want to attain, and hold onto, their positions. And it is a list that tries to follow Loveman's maxim: it is shorter than ten items in length!

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  September 23, 2010; 3:25 PM ET
Category:  CEOs , Leadership personalities , Organizational Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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