Prevent Power from Corrupting Your Leadership
Prevent Power from Corrupting Your Leadership

we are all familiar with the warning that “power corrupts.” And if you’re like me, when you hear the phrase the first type of corrupted power you think of is greed. If you shift the phrase to the military frame of reference, you might think of generals breaking joint ethics regulations on TDY travel and contracting, or perhaps the senior leader with the moral lapse. The commonality among them is a feeling of invincibility that either distorts judgment or severs behavior from prudent thought. When power is involved, we are all at risk.

The Subtle Shift

Something happened when I took command for the first time years ago. When I woke up that morning I had no authority, no official leadership position, little influence. But by 1100, I had more authority than I’d ever had before…and it was reinforced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice! Sure, I had a boss, but I also had power to run things the way I wanted to.
Most of us, however, wouldn’t immediately take this power to the extreme and start upending the organization. We have some humility, some perspective, and some deference to our bosses that keeps us in check. The problem isn’t that we would take the mantle of leadership and declare our omnipotence as leaders. The problem is that over time, our increasing comfort with power nudges us towards feelings of omnipotence and unless restrained, could lead to disaster.

Start with Velcro
As your rock star moment comes up, here are some ideas to prevent power from distorting your influence:

1. Remember that your rank is held on by Velcro. A boss of mine once promoted a Colonel to Brigadier General with the warning that it takes a lifetime to earn the rank but only a second to rip it off. There’s a lesson about keeping yourself out of trouble, but also one about humility.

2. Clearly define problems before slinging out answers. If you have the decision authority, you probably have some control over the decision window. Avoid responding to every problem with your first instinct, especially in the beginning of your tenure. Take a moment (or a day) to specify what is being asked, what the relevant factors are, who the key players are, what resources the problem will require, and what effects you want to achieve for your team. Then start issuing guidance. You will see two important effects:  1) You will increase the quality of your decisions, and 2) You will teach your team the level of analysis you expect from them before presenting future problems.

3. Create a conduit of accountability.  As you gain authority (and usually autonomy along with it), find someone you trust and give them license to provide honest feedback. You could choose your senior enlisted adviser, your spouse, or a peer leader. Run your challenges and decisions by this person for a sanity check. As a side note, some people think forming this type of relationship with peer leaders (i.e. people you are evaluated against) is professionally risky. I disagree. The end state of such lateral mentor-ship is ultimately better leadership for the Soldiers and stronger bonds between adjacent unit leaders. Those effects far outweigh concerns about career progression. (Read more about this in How to Survive a Shrinking Army.)

Ask for input from those you are leading.Yes, it’s OK to ask how you are doing as a leader. Are you communicating your message effectively? Are you attending to the critical needs of your followers? Do you micromanage your staff or perhaps give too little guidance? Do intermediate leaders dilute your vision for the organization before it gets to the troops? We all think we’re hitting home runs until we open our eyes and see that the balls are barely clearing the infield. Ask the lowest level in your organization how things are going and you’ll gain invaluable perspective.

4. Maintain a habit of growth. It’s impossible to think you have all the answers if you have a habit of learning. Put another way…if you stop learning, it’s easy to think that you have all the answers (talent) you need to succeed. Acquiring new knowledge keeps you intellectually humble, which is a priceless trait for leaders to possess. Stay on the growth journey with books, videos, podcasts, articles, blogs, and conversations that elevate.

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