I recently got a new job at a government agency and this job puts me at the top of the organization. As such, I have been reflecting a lot on the meaning of leadership and leadership power.
Often, when we hear that a person “comes into power”, what is means is the person got a job position and title that come with authority and control. Then at some point in this leader’s journey, she/he/they would be asked to share power (or at a minimum, to not hoard power). What does that really mean though, if we can’t share the job title or position? After all, there is only one Board Chair, one executive director, one CEO. It took me a while to reflect and learn on the job about what it means to share power:
Information is power: Therefore, as a leader, sharing power means sharing information that you may have assumed to be “privileged” and ask yourself “why do I think that?” Chances are, when leaders error on the side of sharing more, their teams and stakeholders would feel more “in the loop” and able to do their own work better.
Access is power: As a leader, I have privileges with the connections that come as a result of my job / position. Leaders should share their political, social and personal connections unselfishly. Meeting and networking is not for our own benefit but it is a way to help others create their personal network that gives them access to decision-makers, those with resources, and so on. True leaders are also those who are willing to step aside and let these new connections (without us) blossom, and celebrate these new connections being formed.
The ability to “control” is power. Controlling the “way things are done”, or the authority to change “the way things are done” are all expressions of power. If a leader shares power in this context, it means that they are letting go of unnecessary control of how things are done rigidly “because I say so.” Instead, a better way to lead is to ask those who work intimately with the process, or rules, “do these rules help you do your job better? How can I help remove the aspects of this process or rule that prevents you from doing your best at work?”
Information, access, and control are some of the ways that leaders of the past hold on to their positions and power. What if the new leaders of today and tomorrow redefine the power they have? Instead of using the powers to build up ourselves as leaders, perhaps there are better ways to lead by finding ways to include, connect, and influence so we can build something greater (beyond ourselves) with those around us.
By Cynthia Wang, Neighborhood House Board President