Feb 21 2008

The power paradox

Dacher Keltner (Psychology prof at Cal) has written a fascinating article that describes some of the important attributes of leaders.  He discusses these attributes in the context of obtaining and maintaining "power" – really leadership if you’re reading the article from the eyes of a VC or entrepreneur.  The title of his article refers to the fact that the attributes necessary to obtain positions of power and leadership are the very attributes that tend to be eroded by those positions themselves (i.e., once people obtain power, they tend to lose it by acting in a way that is antithetical to the reason they rose to that position in the first place). 

Reading the piece through the eyes of a VC, there are a couple of great lessons for those in leadership positions and Keltner really nails a few very common traps that CEOs – particularly first time CEOs – fall into as they navigate the complicated management dynamic with their management and board. As the former manager of a large organization (before becoming a VC I managed a 250 person organization) I see some of the rookie mistakes that I made as I navigated my first really meaningful management position (which is to say managing more than a dozen or so people).  A couple of points stand out (but be sure to read the whole article):

[O]ne’s ability to get or maintain power, even in small group situations, depends on one’s ability to understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence—reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions—prevails over social Darwinism.

One of the key jobs of a CEO is to manage and guide organizational conflict and disagreement – on product direction, on time-lines, on strategic direction, etc.  While a firm hand is often required – the hammer is generally not.  Being a dictator – and putting your opinions and feelings above those of any and everyone else is a quick way to erode one’s standing as leader and diminish the respect for you from your management and board.

Time and time again, empirical studies find that leaders who treat their subordinates with respect, share power, and generate a sense of camaraderie and trust are considered more just and fair.

Successful leaders not only recognize their own limitations and hire people around them to fill in the gaps, they tend to be consensus builders and somewhat hands-off delegateors.  They "share power" and show respect to their teams by empowering decision making and individual action, rather than micro-managing and second-guessing every decision.  Thoughtful managers define general course and direction and for the most part allow their teams to run their respective areas.  If you’ve hired well, this should be the natural dynamic amongst a management team (and with each other, not just with respect to their interaction with their superiors).

[P]ower is [not] acquired strategically in deceptive gamesmanship and by pitting others against one another.

This is particularly true at the board level, but also clearly relevant amongst any group of company managers.  Selectively managing information flow to support a specific, pre-determined outcome; engaging in a series of one-off conversations with the intent of lobbying your position or picking off the group one at a time eventually back-fires.  Acknowledging group differences, understanding the various perspectives brought to the table by your management team and making your case out in the open are much more effective ways to drive a process of decision making.

I look forward to other thoughts on the subject – please comment away!