I started my career as a psychotherapist. The problem was, in my early twenties I looked 12. And so it was a struggle for me to occupy that role.
Not only because I looked young, but because I was young. While I had been trained and had insight, I lacked lived experience. For a therapist, like a blues musician, book smarts without street smarts, without life experience, just doesn’t cut it.
And that meant I was constantly fielding challenging questions like:
“How would you know about this problem?”
“Have you ever had children?”
“How long have you been doing this?”
Looking back, in today’s lingo, I see that I was afraid “to stand in my power.” My age and lack of experience dwarfed (in my mind) my expert power and my positional power.
As it turns out, standing in the power of one’s role is challenging for many. Even for more seasoned professionals—ones that actually look their age.
For instance, many leaders I have coached don’t feel comfortable asserting their positional power.
Fellow coaches and consultants have admitted that they feel awkward asserting their power of expertise.
Both prefer seeing themselves as partners, using personal power rather than positional or expert power. They rely on their personal characteristics to influence and engage others. They try to lead by example. They use their relational and social skills to create cooperative and collaborative relationships.
And the current Zeitgeist supports this. The most popular leadership books and approaches right now focus on leading with trust, empathy, and authenticity.
The cultural moment is about humanizing leadership and humanizing the workplace.
It creates a better culture, boosts morale, creates more psychological safety, and increases ownership and initiative.
But it’s not enough. In fact, it’s precisely only 50% of the leadership equation.
We’re focusing on building better humans in the role, but neglecting the role the human needs to occupy.
While the focus for the past 30 years or so has been on building emotionally and socially self-aware and compassionate leaders, we have experienced a concurrent rise in leadership misconduct and corporate corruption.
The list of CEOs ousted because of sexual harassment, bullying, fraud, discrimination, and creating toxic cultures is huge and growing.
As is the number of organizational scandals, from the Catholic Church and Volkswagen to Wells Fargo Bank and Theranos.
This one-sided focus on personal development—building empathic, authentic, and self-aware leaders—isn’t enough.
As a manager, teacher, parent, coach, or consultant, your first duty is to your role, not to your team, your people, or your colleagues.
There are critical moments when fulfilling your role diverges from what you want to do, from what your feelings tell you to do, and from what others want you to do.
Roles have functions, tasks, responsibilities, boundaries, and limits that are critical for the ethical execution of that role.
This is a critical point. And one that involves the non-sexy side of leadership: ethics, responsibility, conflict of interest, and accountability.
So, what does it mean to occupy a role? What are the benefits of the role and the positional power that goes with it?
Roles tell us what to do. They clarify the outcome we’re meant to achieve. It sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s not always clear what we’re meant to do, nor what we’re meant to achieve. Every role has competing functions, tasks, and conflicts of interest.
I want to empower my team to make decisions, but at the same time, not all decisions are up to debate, and I have to be the decider.
As a teacher, I have to help my students learn, and at the same time discipline them, or fail them, which may result in a setback to their learning.
Focusing on our role (what’s my job, and what does it require me to do?), is a way to clear the fog, to refocus on the outcome for which we’re responsible.
Roles have boundaries. A boundary distinguishes me in the role from you outside of it. Again, it sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s easy to blur that boundary:
I am afraid to give feedback because you get defensive, making your reactions guide my behavior. I worry about your well-being and get overly enmeshed in your troubles.
Or, as a manager, I have a ‘captive’ audience and can complain and share my personal problems with my team when I’m upset. Which is confusing, delinquent, and borderline unethical behavior in a manager role.
Roles help people succeed by defining expectations. If you don’t know what your role is, you don’t know what tasks you’re meant to accomplish. And that means you don’t know how to succeed at what you’re doing.
Having role clarity means clearly identifying who does what, so each person is authorized to do their job. They’re not stepping all over each others’ toes; they have a clear sense of what they’re meant to achieve, which imparts a personal sense of accomplishment and allows them to be rewarded for their efforts.
Roles help avoid the tragedy of the commons. Roles live inside a system. When you occupy a role, you are in the service of a larger system. That helps define the difference between your personal needs and those of the organization.
I don’t want to have to give feedback to my colleague because she gets so defensive. But it’s better for the overall team if I do.
I avoid speaking up because I feel insecure or am afraid to be shot down, but my knowledge and insight will help the project.
I assign projects to my friends and people who like me because it’s easier for me to work with people I already know and like.
I won’t share resources or information with my colleague because I want the promotion and don’t want her to succeed.
This is the tragedy of the commons: When I prioritize my self-interest, I jeopardize the good of the system I live in. It’s not just bad for others, but it’s also bad for me.
Truly great leadership is a 50/50 endeavor. We need to be developing great humans. But we also need more clarity and insight into the requirements of the role those great humans are occupying.
Thank you for reading.
The 7 Scales of Power
Most leaders I work with sincerely want to use their power well. But knowing how to use well is easier said than done. We’re not very good at self-assessing, and because of our high-power role, we can’t trust we’re getting the feedback we need.
My new 7-week email course helps fast-track the effective use of power in a leadership role by introducing the 7 key behaviors for recognizing and using your power effectively. Grounded in my research over the last 10 years, these key leadership behaviors form the basis of the Diamond Power Index® assessment, used by thousands of leaders around the globe.
Each email introduces one of the behaviors, showing what it is, why it matters, how it plays out, and the concrete steps leaders—or anyone—can take to improve this critical behavior.
– Week 1: Are you approachable?
– Week 2: How do you make people feel?
– Week 3: Are you creating leaders or followers?
– Week 4: You can’t wish away your power.
– Week 5: How can you check your bias?
– Week 6: You’re on stage, whether you like it or not.
– Week 7: Who does your power serve?
If you’re a leader, or you support leaders in your work, you won’t want to miss this free once-weekly email course to learn how to use power to foster healthy and inclusive organizational cultures.