Managing Without Power: not the easy route, but the most effective and sustainable one

Joris Merks-Benjaminsen
November 13, 2023
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Managing Without Power is about consciously NOT using the power that you inevitably hold due to your formal management or leadership position, or due to your privilege.

In the past months I spoke to many people about Managing Without Power. The common reaction: "OK, I get it… leading without authority...". NO THAT'S NOT IT. The target audience is different, namely those who are in formal positions of power. The goal is also different: creating teams and organizations where all types of people can be their best self. And...Managing Without Power is much harder.

Consciously giving up (part of) your power

A lot has been written about leading without authority: it focuses on people who do NOT have a formal position of power, but can still demonstrate leadership and bring people along. Managing Without Power focuses on people who DO have a position of power, either formal because they are manager or leader, or informal because they are for instance famous or part of a privileged majority.

Managing Without Power is about consciously NOT using the power that you inevitably hold due to your formal management or leadership position, or due to your privilege. That's much harder. Leading without authority is mainly a matter of building skills. For Managing Without Power building skills is not enough. It requires three steps, each hard to take:

  1. Consciously GIVING UP (some of) the power that comes with your privileged position.
  2. UNLEARNING behaviors that stem from unconscious leaning on power: habits that were often built up over many years must be unlearned.
  3. Using the space that is created by unlearning unconscious leaning on power to build new types of leadership skills that no longer lean on the power you have.

It's harder for formal managers and leaders to build and informal leadership position, because there will still be moments when you have no other choice than to apply your formal power: for example giving people performance ratings, making decisions about their pay or promotions are such moments. These moments interfere with your informal leadership credibility. The art is to base these moments of formal power on fair and clear principles, and to explain those over and over again. That allows you to balance your formal and informal leadership.

Creating space to invest: five 'brilliant basics'

Unlearning the unconscious leaning on your position of power creates space to invest in your team and organization: that investment is made in five 'brilliant basics', which you must succeed on if you want your team to perform to its maximum potential:

  1. Meaningful conversations about career and personal growth: seeing the whole professional and human being, as unbiased as you can.
  2. Aligning direction and expectations.
  3. Meaningful meetings and consciously cultivating team norms (and being a role model for them).
  4. Measuring progress and providing ongoing support and feedback.
  5. Fair and predictable performance evaluations.

Doing the right thing, for year team and organization

The hardest bit is that the sense of urgency amongst those holding power is low, because they are not the ones suffering the consequences of a power based leadership style. Those consequences are felt in all organizational layers under them, and lead to continuous pressure, political behavior, and a culture where mainly people with somewhat thick skin succeed and survive. Even worse: people don't tell the leader what the problem is, because it makes you look weak, and because they prefer to say what they believe leadership wants to hear. Some leaders are starting to notice the problem though, from a variety of angles. For instance they struggle with...

...attracting and retaining talent amongst younger generations who have higher expectations from meaning of work and organizational culture

...attracting and retaining diverse talent, and creating an inclusive culture inability to transform their organizations fast enough

...doubts about the strategy for flexible and remote work

...instances of inappropriate behavior that keep popping up, despite putting mechanisms in place to report them and deal with them

These are all symptoms of a power based leadership style, and there’s no point fighting symptoms without changing the underlying root causes. 

Stop fighting symptoms, start investing in the foundations

It's time to stop fighting symptoms, and to start making space for investing in the foundations of the teams that work for you. Leaning less on your power opens the door to building organizations with a high bar for performance as well as humaneness and where inclusiveness is the 'default setting'. After all, you can only achieve maximum performance, as a team and as an organization, when all types of people are their best selves and work well together.

The book Managing Without Power is now available on all local Amazon stores. Curious about our trainings Managing Without Power for managers and leaders? Check

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