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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Power versus the Story of Vision (or, How Leaders Act When They Lack Leadership)

Leadership is our ability to bring out the best in people. In other words, we want to get others to perform behaviors that create success. The way we do this - the way we move people from their existing behaviors to more successful, excellent behaviors - is the practice of leadership.

When we have a clear understanding of this practice, the things we need to accomplish, and the way we accomplish them, then we succeed as leaders. We figure out how to use our own behavior to bring about this excellence in others. We tell the story of vision, which connects an individual's actions in the group to a shared, meaningful impact on the customer. This story explains not only one person's role but also the interconnected roles of all members of the group. We then build relationships, or patterns of behavior, that support the performance of tasks that make the vision become real. And, because we want members to experiment and improve their process of learning, we build these relationships so that they encourage learning and improvement within the performance of tasks. This is the definition of leadership in action.

But what happens when a leader doesn't understand leadership? This person still wants to make others behave in certain ways, but he or she lacks the tools to tell the story of vision, build productive interchange and emotion relationships, or encourage learning. Instead, the leaderless leader falls back on power: the authority of the organization and position. The person uses power and manipulation to force others to behave in certain ways.

We see this use of power, rather than leadership, when we observe someone control others' behavior through relationships. This leader acts in ways that create negative emotion reactions, performing behaviors that make other people feel bad. Or we see this person use interchanges to make a person’s tasks more difficult, or even use the assignment of tasks to enforce the desired behaviors. Power creates negative experiences for members of the group, rather than the desire for a successful shared accomplishment that comes from leadership.

If the leaderless leader lacks authority, he or she will use personal punishments such as gossip, shunning, malicious compliance, or poor performance to attempt to change another person's behavior.

When leaders lack leadership, they replace the shared story of vision and supporting relationships with power and control. These harmful tools destroy individual performance and engagement, and they divide groups. Nor is there any joy to be found in the work. The result is that members - and the group as a whole - fail to reach excellence.

We have all seen this in other leaders. And yes, very likely, we have at times engaged in this behavior ourselves. So here are a few questions for you to consider as you evaluate your leadership:

  • Do I use shared vision to create direction, showing others what they can accomplish when they perform with excellence?

  • Or do I use my position or authority to make others perform tasks and interact with others in the way that I want?

  • Do I build relationships that move people towards this shared vision?

  • Or do I use relationships to make others change behaviors that I dislike?

  • Do I create the steps to accomplish a shared output where members can select their best performances?

  • Or do I act upon others to make them perform tasks in specific ways because I desire they act or feel a certain way?

  • Do I show others how changing their behavior will help their individual success, and help them contribute to the group's success?

  • Or do I use punishment and negative emotions to make others change their behaviors?

An honest assessment of these questions is the first step to becoming a successful leader. We all fall back on power and authority when our leadership practice isn't as strong as it needs to be. This doesn't mean we are bad people, but rather that we need to dive into the process of learning more completely. We bring out excellence in others when we show them the meaning and value of their work and create relationships that support their productive contributions to the shared output.

(As a side note, the functional framework explains why leadership doesn't require a position. Anyone can talk about the story of vision, build relationships, and encourage learning. It's only when we lack these tools that we need power, or organizational authority, to make others behave in a certain way. If our approach requires we lean on others using our title or position, then we're probably not leading. )

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