Posted: 01 Jul. 2020 4 min.

When leaders hoard power and fail to invest it, they essentially block achievement

Topic: Resilient Leadership

The current crisis forces us to revisit some of the hard-knock truths about leadership, including the responsibility to use power to create results.

‘When some people have too much unused power and others have too little, problems occur.’

This quote is spot on and extremely relevant right now. It is from an old copy of the Harvard Business Review, the July–August 2004 edition to be exact, in which Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter makes some important observations about how successful companies put the organisational power to work.

Many of us are not used to or even comfortable about talking about power in organisations. Sure, power is a part of any hierarchy – some might even say it is an inherent part of humanity – but in the name or collaboration, fellowship, community and commitment, we often tend to tone it down.

But sometimes it is actually important to talk about power – especially if there is an imbalance in the distribution of power in an organisation, which essentially prevents the organisation from functioning. If power becomes a way for leaders to build territory in a time of crisis rather than bringing about productive action, that’s where we have to act.

Here is what Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes:

‘In large organizations, at least, I have observed that powerlessness “corrupts.” That is, a lack of power (the capacity to mobilize resources and people to get things done) tends to create managers who are more concerned about guarding their territories than about collaborating with others to benefit the organization. At the same time, when managers hoard potential power and don’t invest it in productive action, it atrophies and eventually blocks achievements. (…) When some people have too much unused power and others have too little, problems occur.’

To me, this kind of thinking is not only an eye-opener into the complexities of an organisation, but also a wake-up call to each of us as leaders as we now embark on the heavy task of organisational recovery in the face of this immense COVID-19 crisis.

The burden of leadership is not only working hard and making tough decisions, but also accepting the fact that if for some reason we are not giving it 100 percent, we are actually making people suffer when we should be making them succeed. If we have power, that power has to be invested and circulated, not just partly but to its fullest. If not, we are slowing everyone down.

Let this be a daily reminder to each of us to constantly revisit the structures of our leadership:

  • Let us talk openly and without prejudice if the old hierarchy no longer is fit for the new COVID-19 reality.
  • Let us continue to encourage initiative, participation and corporate entrepreneurship even if some major decisions must be centralised due to the crisis.
  • Let us praise those who are willing to test new solutions to the most difficult challenges, whether in business, in government or even around the global issues of climate change and social injustice.

And most importantly, let us always be honest with ourselves as leaders and ready to face the difficult questions: Are we really promoting progress in our organisation or secretly slowing it down? Are we more worried about guarding our territory than actually inspiring action? Are we sitting on power – or using it?

These are some of the tough questions that I believe will help us get through the crisis – from responding to recovering to actually thriving.

More about the author

Martin Søegaard

Martin Søegaard

Partner

Martin is the manager of Deloitte's Danish and Nordic consulting business and has more than 25 years of experience in advising Danish and international companies. Martin is at the forefront of developing a consulting practice across the Nordic region that can assist Danish and international companies on their most complex transformation journeys. This includes a focus on management, the establishment of ecosystems as well as on diversity in professionalism and competence.