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Leadership: Strength vs. Power

As times change, the skills required to be an effective leader change. In this age of corporate downsizing and doing more with fewer resources, the job of being a leader is different. The traditional leadership model of “power” has become less effective and is now being replaced by a model of “strength.”

One of the tools I use while coaching clients is to look at “distinctions.” Distinctions are the differences between things; sometimes very subtle differences between things that appear similar. For example, “power” and “strength” appear similar and have often been used interchangeably when discussing leadership. However, the distinction between strength and power is what can make the difference between success and failure in our new environment. The beauty of really “getting” a distinction is that the actual understanding of the difference between ideas gives us a new place to come from.

Let’s look at the traditional meaning and connotation of “power” as it relates to leadership. Power typically suggests something that is bestowed on you from the outside. For example: you are promoted, or your boss puts you in charge of a task force. Power is frequently tied to position: being a CEO, a manager, partner, judge, parent, senator. The concept of power implies what you can do to other people: hire and fire, limit the freedom of others. Power frequently carries external symbols of itself: large office, big staff, preferential parking or seating.

The leadership model of “strength” implies something different. Strength is internal vs. external. Strength is what you have inside, not what any outside agency promoted you to. Strength is not dependent on any position: The concept of strength implies not what you can do to others; but what you can create from your own resources. Where power sometimes motivates people through fear, strength leads people through inspiration. Strength connotes charisma, attractiveness. People more naturally follow a strong person. They are motivated to act by something beyond that person’s title.

For example, coming from power is: to tell your staff what you want them to do and leave only minimal room for their comment. Strength is: to throw out an idea to your staff and watch them rally around the idea and plan the implementation themselves. Granted, this takes more personal security. What will you do if they do not rise to the occasion? Strength can handle that. Power dictates.

As we look at the current magnitude of change in the workplace, it is clear that strength vs. power has several advantages for those in leadership. Leaders can no longer depend on their positions so heavily. Reorganization and downsizing strip executives of positional power every day. Change is so frequent that the relative hierarchy of jobs is also unclear. For example, managers today frequently have multiple reporting lines. Who is really in power?

From a more personal view: managers and executives who have built their identity around their jobs are experiencing a very rude awakening when their roles are suddenly changed. We hear many stories of professionals who have fallen into personal crisis after losing a position they expected to have until retirement. They depended too much on the power they were given. And even for managers who survive a downsizing, they can remain employed but be stripped of power, thereby forcing an unexpected shift in identity. There is also the executive who worked up the pyramid for twenty years to a key position. He may have built his power base by making connections with those in power; but now the organization’s culture has shifted and some other variable is more valued than those relationships. Another threat to what looked like permanent power.

By contrast, the concept of strength implies the personal ability to withstand pressure, handle the stress of change and continue. As change in the workplace continues to accelerate, there will be new meaning to the adage: “only the strong survive.” Leaders who base their identity on their personal strength will be the survivors.

When reorganizations happen, leaders are left with the challenge of doing more work with less staff. Coming from a place of “power” is one way to make the staff work harder—but this way is limited. To increase productivity, we will need to tap into people’s voluntary effort as well as what they must do to remain employed. Over time, it is strength that will inspire people to be more productive.

People respond to strength differently from how they respond to power. People are attracted to a strong leader with a vision when that vision includes benefits for all involved. The leader who can create this picture and communicate it will need a strong “personal foundation,” the ability to build rapport quickly with others and a motivating style. This all comes from internal strength vs. external power.

And how do leaders actually make this shift from power to strength? There are several things one can do to change behavior, but the most important shift is in “who you become.” Shifting to strength means becoming a person who is very secure in their personal effectiveness, regardless of the job they are in. Shifting to strength means becoming someone who successfully motivates others to action without external leverage. Shifting to strength means becoming someone so attractive that others want to join your vision because it feels right to them. To shift to strength is to become someone whose personal foundation is unable to be shaken by changing circumstances.

It’s all in the distinction: strength vs. power.

To hear Val’s talk about these leadership, get the audio CD Leadership.

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