Effective leadership requires the ability to use power effectively.

And most ineffective leadership stems from a leader’s misuse of power.


Because power comes with the means for its own misuse. And this makes it easy to fall into its traps for personal gain.

Yet the misuse (and abuse) of power comes at a very high cost. In fact, companies spend an estimated $64 billion annually on problems stemming from the poor use of power ineffective leadership.

So how can you avoid these costly missteps?

Effective Leadership starts by recognizing and learning to work with the 5 most common traps of power that result in ineffective leadership.

  1. Using power before you earn it
  2. Sidestepping authority
  3. Buying your own pitch
  4. Satisfying self interest
  5. Not holding yourself accountable


1. Using power before earning it


Leaders who lead with their authority alone are at risk of losing legitimacy.

Whether eager to make a mark, driven by ego, or just anxious to be legitimized, when leaders embark on new initiatives before gaining a following, and the buy-in of those they lead, they risk losing support.

A manager who hasn’t taken time to cultivate relationships, to share their vision, or to ask for the feedback and input of peers is at risk of alienating her team.

If you want commitment, and not just compliance, then you have to earn the trust of those you lead, through your actions, not just because of your title.

It is your actions and decisions, not your title,  that earn legitimacy.

To Avoid this Trap:

  1. Cultivate trust, and make yourself approachable so that your team feels it can weigh in honestly, give feedback, and contribute freely.
  2. Take time to enroll others in your vision. Communicate. Over-communicate. Your next big idea may be well-established  inside your mind, but it’s new to everyone else.
  3. If you want to make change, then expect resistance. Respect the status quo, even as you seek to change it. Even the greatest ideas will incur resistance, because people become attached to the way things are, even if the way things are is ineffective.
  4. Ask questions. Seek out others’ experience and expertise. Show that you’re open to learning and growth before you expect others to follow.


2. Sidestepping authority


Conversely, it can be just as costly when a manager chooses to sidestep authority in the hopes of avoiding mistakes.

What does this look like?

Failing to take a stand when needed. Avoiding the tough call at the cost of clarity. Endlessly debating the pros and cons, afraid to make a decision.

By avoiding the difficult conversations in order not to offend, managers fail to hold people accountable and fail to help them grow.

It also creates confusion.

When decisions and objectives are vague, employees won’t know what’s expected of them, and results will ultimately suffer.

In short, by trying to minimize your authority footprint, you’re making a choice not to lead.

To sidestep this challenge to effective leadership:

  1. Become more conflict competent. If you find this challenging, don’t get discouraged. Get coaching. Or take courses on how to give feedback, hold difficult conversations, and raise controversial topics.
  2. Hold people accountable. When there are no consequences for action (or inaction), there’s no motivation for people to do anything more than the bare minimum.
  3. See feedback as an opportunity for growth. You’re not being kind when you avoid giving feedback to others. In fact, quite the opposite. You’re depriving that person of a chance to be their best.


3. Buying one’s own pitch


Leaders are always at risk of creating cultures where their ideas go unchallenged. It can even happen without intent.

This is because, by default, people rarely speak ‘truth to power.’ Instead, they hold back, defer, and keep their doubts and disagreements to themselves.

Thus, leaders can cherry-pick the feedback that confirms what they already think. They measure progress with their own yardstick. And they fall victim to their self-confirming beliefs.

Such a leader, insulated by others who are eager to agree, risks creating a culture that is cultist, insular, and dangerously out of touch.

To avoid this trap of power:

  1. Create a culture of healthy debate and disagreement. Make conflict safe, fun, and productive—so ideas can be debated skillfully, and nothing is off limits.
  2. Create a team of advisors who have no stake in the game—who can challenge you, and introduce new thinking, ideas, and data that helps you think outside your assumptions.
  3. Get feedback! A robust developmental 360-degree feedback is critical in a role of power. If you don’t have insight into how others experience your impact, you can derail.


4. Satisfying self-interest


A high-ranking role makes it easy to satisfy personal needs.

A professor compels graduate students to take on menial tasks. A boss pressures subordinates to run undesirable errands.

Leaders can use their power to set a schedule or assign projects in ways that favor themselves and friends.

Self-interested leaders may not follow all the rules while expecting others to toe the line.

They promote friends, relatives, or favorites into key positions. They think asking for a few favors is harmless, but fail to realize (or don’t want to see) that subordinates aren’t really free to refuse their self-serving requests.

Ultimately, the inability to separate personal from organizational interests undermines performance, as well as the respect of others.

To avoid this challenge to effective leadership:

  1. Make it a habit to interrogate your biases. Make sure your promotion, assignments, and development opportunities are allocated fairly.
  2. Don’t base your decisions on expedience (“I’ll give it to John because I know he will get it done). Or feelings (I’ll give it Alicia because she’s easy to work with). Base them instead on clear, transparent, and rational criteria.
  3. Ask for outside guidance on your decisions and choices. Otherwise, you can be deceived by your feelings and biases.


5. Neglecting accountability


Power lets us off the hook.

Managers can lose their temper, behave rudely, blame others for mistakes, or take credit for their wins.

They fail to manage their emotions under stress. They can retaliate against those who disagree with them, criticize or shame others in public, or hold grudges based on perceived slights from others..

Not holding yourself accountable also takes more subtle, yet equally destructive form.

Managers can ignore emails and texts, arrive late to meetings, or refuse to share resources and vital information.

When leaders don’t hold themselves accountable, not only do people leave and disengage, but it also creates a toxic culture.

A leader’s behavior sets the tone, signalling to everyone in the organization what behavior is permitted and tolerated.

To avoid this trap of power:

  1. You MUST hold the people you manage accountable. If you don’t, the good people on your team will eventually leave due to the toxic atmosphere one, destructive person creates.
  2. Learn how to manage yourself under stress. Know what sets you off, and develop methods for maintaining your composure.
  3. Your behavior is aided and abetted by others who aren’t giving honest feedback. Make sure the people around you are able to give honest and firm criticism, without fear of reprisals.
  4. Remember that “what’s good for the hive is good for the bee.” Your own success is limited if the culture (your hive) is dysfunctional. If your actions undermine the culture, you’re ultimately sabotaging your own career as well.


Wrapping Up


Power comes with the means for its own abuse, allowing us perks and privileges to satisfy our self-interest.

Effective leadership requires the ability to recognize and work with the common traps of power that accompany a leadership role.

  1. Using power before you earn it
  2. Sidestepping authority
  3. Buying your own pitch
  4. Satisfying self interest
  5. Not holding yourself accountable


Avoiding these traps and using your power well will enable you to influence more effectively, bring out the best in the people you lead, and create a healthy and innovative organizational culture.