Breakthrough Strategies

Controlling Your Leadership Power

Overusing power indeed makes a statement, but often one that just reflects insecurity, not deep confidence.

It’s tempting in a high-paced, power-through-it world to operate as “if some is good, then more must be better.” However, this mindset can rebound negatively. 

In the safety realm, for example, it is telling and no coincidence that “Overexertion” is the number one injury “all-time-winner-and-still-champion,” according to the most recent - and all previous - Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index of disabling injuries. Overexertion is overusing strength and power. These typically result in strains (to muscles and tendons) and sprains (ligaments.) In other words, those body parts that hold your joints together and help you move. Overexertion can occur from trying too hard, putting too much muscle into a task then carrying workers over the edge into soft-tissue injuries. 

However, overexerting is not limited to physical safety. It is also a hallmark of less-than-effective leadership. Oftentimes trying too hard, using too much force to the degree it backfires. I’d bet you’ve seen this happen: leaders talking too much and listening too little. Often trying to drum ideas or procedures into what they think as others’ “thick skulls.” Attempting to wear down workers’ resistance through disdainful repetition. This often stems from busy leaders not understanding the exertion tasks require, or that staff are shorthanded.

But doggedly pushing the same-old approaches to change or safety doesn’t seem to move the needle. Ditto for repeating the same training and messaging in the same lulling ways. Overloading workers with yet more policies and procedures they’re expected to memorize. Incomplete or off-target organizational communications can distract workers and fuel rumor mills. Calling people out, worst case, in front of their peers with the assumption that embarrassing people will get them to change.

Much of this “strong man” approach comes from the assumption that power is demonstrated by how outwardly tough, challenging, unyielding, loud or rigid a leader is. It is behind the old-school belief that leaders are born, not developed, that the physically larger the leader, the “stronger” he is. But numerous organizational studies consistently dispute this. In fact, empathy and connected communication, both traditionally seen as “soft,” are actually hallmark attributes of effective leadership.  

I also know that, even when it comes to fighting, victory often goes to the most strategic and skilled, not necessarily the side that has the most weapons. I could give many actual examples of older, smaller, physically weaker people readily overcoming younger, stronger, faster opponents. This happens by developing the mental and physical skillsets of directing/redirecting forces rather than trying to attempt to overpower or hard-block resistance in ways that drain their own strength or are bound to lose against even greater “outward” power. 

Take my colleague, Paul McClellan, who, while not an imposingly large person, is a martial arts master. Paul employs his martial arts expertise in all his work. Not by intimidating others nor showing off what he can do that they can’t. But by reading even slight shifts in their attention, interest, resistances and more, then taking small actions to help curve these towards considering and open-mindedly trying out different safety methods that might indeed improve their tasks and help their lives work better. 

Five Power Principles

Control your own power first. Leaders have the greatest potential leverage over themselves, not others. This means not attempting to expect others to immediately enlist safety skills that the leader himself can’t or won’t implement.

Use measured force. The most effective application of power is based on applying just the right amount in the right place in the right direction at the right time. No more, no less. Not too soon nor too late.

Timing is everything. Giving feedback too early or too late is minimally useful and can spark resistance rather than improvement.

Redirect, don’t block. Paul talks about never “going perpendicular” to others. That is, not hard-blocking their resistances or even attacks. Rather, safely “receive” their force, acknowledging/validating their concerns, then, only when their “attack” ebbs, offering options with a carrier wave of non-pushy concern. Knowing that even when sincere communications are driven by over exuberance, this can spur pushback that slows down or even blocks acceptance of potential improvements.

Apply force smoothly. Think of dialing up a rheostat, gradually. Conversely, many leaders disregard the many steps counseled in “progressive discipline” and directly accelerate from 0 to 150 mph in a few seconds, immediately to punishing or even firing. This over-reaction to a perceived attack or affront is often triggered by being overcome by shock or fear. Conversely, high-level leaders don’t allow themselves to be triggered into overreacting to others’ words or actions or to unexpected events. They know that calmness in the face of problems or even crisis dramatically elevates decision-making even when it is easier to say than do. 

Did you hear about that CEO who, in an apoplectic overreaction, unexpectedly accused and immediately fired 900 employees over a Zoom call? He was subsequently pressured to resign. Calmness does not denote lack of understanding. Empathy and conveying concern are not signs of weakness but actually of strength. Spur of the moment unilateral decision-making does not exhibit power and is often foolhardy.  

Overusing power indeed makes a statement, but often one that just reflects insecurity, not deep confidence. It is the semblance, the delusion of strength rather than the deeper, real thing. More is not necessarily better, and going overboard often miscarries. I have seen people increasingly learning to see through the mere veneer of such external blustering “power.” 

Self-control is the innate key to personal and leadership power. This is well beyond repressing reactions/sitting on your hands/clamping down and being able to relax and weigh options even when it seems like stuff is hitting the fan. As my wing chun gung fu sifu (teacher) once took me aside and told me, “If you can’t control your own power, how can you hope to redirect others?” 

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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