• Leadership

Using Executive Power Wisely

How to avoid self-serving behaviour to build sustainable power


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There are countless reasons why CEO and senior executive turnover takes place; external factors such as economic volatility, disruptive technology, and industry shakeups can all play a part. But according to an article by Sebastien Brion in IESE Insight, a senior leader’s own perceptions are a crucial factor in their fall from grace. He describes a phenomenon where executives fatally overestimate the strength of their relationships with others — what he calls an “illusion of alliance.”

Brion outlines six steps that leaders can typically take to gain and maintain power (i.e. control over some valued resource upon which others depend). This power can be used for good ‘pro-social’ ends if used according to Brion’s guidelines:

  1. Control valued resources: decide which knowledge and expertise are particularly critical resources for your organization. It may be that you have to acquire the extra knowledge needed for a particular project, or that you already have strong relationships with the people who have it, but you act as a gatekeeper between them and others. Either way, confidence in your abilities and your position in a network will impact your efforts to control these valued resources.
  2. Develop social skills: these are verbal and nonverbal interpersonal skills that allow you to coordinate group activity, motivate others, resolve conflict and communicate information.
  3. Internalize your power: learning to do so will help you gradually come to think, feel and act in powerful ways.
  4. Keep tabs on your behaviour and environment: power has been shown to contribute to ethical transgressions, biased decision-making and skewed perceptions of others. As such, it is important to be mindful of your behaviour and the way in which you interact with those around you.
  5. Use your power to serve others: power is more readily lost when executives prioritize self-interest over collective goals. As such, one of the keys to maintaining power is advancing the interests of colleagues and subordinates. Model behaviour that demonstrates your commitment to others; in other words, make decisions that benefit your subordinates, your team and your organization, not just yourself.
  6. Nurture alliances: fortifying relations with others includes coalition behaviour, such as forming alliances. This is necessary to reduce dependence on individuals; in addition, alliances lend power in the form of political support. Neglecting them or taking them for granted can eventually lead to isolation and vulnerability.

According to Brion, by learning to act in manners such as those outlined above, CEOs can build their power rather than precipitate their own demise.

Brion suggests that the biggest determinant of whether senior leaders maintain or lose power is the extent to which they emulate self-serving versus group-serving behaviour. CEOs that do not serve their subordinate and stakeholder groups might end up facing pressure to step-down or worse, be ousted by forces that conspire against them.

As such, facilitating social coordination and cooperation in order to enhance group success is crucial. Avoid self-serving behaviour and personalized power motivations. Instead, use your power wisely and for the benefit of the people around you and the organization you serve.  

Read the paper: Think You Have Power? Check Your Perceptions. Sebastien Brion. IESE Insight Issue 19 (Fourth Quarter 2013).

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