The hardest part of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you’re perceived to be by others.
In the classic fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” no one dares tell the King that he is naked, except for the lowest ranking person in the crowd—a young boy.
While we have a fairly good sense of how a high power role can skew our judgment and alter our behavior, what really makes being a position of power tricky is that power doesn’t just alter us, it alters the people around us. Like the townspeople in The Emperor’s New Clothes, people put on an act for the leader. They tell her what they think she wants to hear. Or, they hold back what they really think out of fear, mistrust, or even admiration, sealing the leader’s approval. People have their own self-interest and may hesitate to share bad news, inflate good news, or push for their own agenda or pet project.
Leaders lead through this “lens of power,” a distorting mirror that alters how people see them and relate to them. And this means that they may not be getting an accurate view of their organization. When people don’t give honest feedback, share information, or simply don’t feel free to speak up, leaders are at risk. They lose that critical outside reflection of themselves and their decision, and with it, the ability to see themselves or their actions clearly and to evaluate their effectiveness.
So how can leaders navigate this problematic lens of power? Here are three impactful ways leaders can successfully navigate the lens of power and get a more accurate read of the power they present to others:
Leave the Jersey in a Better Place
The New Zealand All Blacks, one of the winningest teams of all times, have a motto that expresses the idea that it’s not you, it’s the role you’re in: Leave the jersey in a better place. You are wearing the jersey, now, for a limited time. But you represent all those who came before you and those who will follow.
As a leader, remembering that you are a role—the current occupant of your office—helps remind you that people will treat you as a role. So don’t take others’ expectations and projections personally, neither the awe and accolades, nor the criticism and judgment. If you take the role of leader personally, you start to believe that you are exceptional (or you sink under the weight of criticism and expectation). Taking it personally also eclipses the reality of teamwork. No one leads without the help, support, insights, and contributions of those around them.
Serve the role you occupy. Put the needs of the organization ahead of you, and leave the office in a better place.
Close the Gap
The Lens of Power distorts communication. What you intend to say and what is actually heard can be miles apart. The intent-impact gap, the miscommunication that occurs between what you intend to say and how the other experiences it, is nowhere more treacherous than in relationships of asymmetrical power.
When you occupy a position of power, your words and actions carry additional meaning. People will interpret, magnify, and distort everything you do and say. When you think you’re inviting others to speak, they feel put on the spot. You think you’re easing the atmosphere, but they think you’re making light of a serious situation and avoiding difficult topics. In a meeting, you try to stick to the agenda so you don’t waste everyone’s valuable time, and yet someone accuses you of suppressing conversation.
Close the gap by knowing that intent and impact are not the same. Over-communicate and meta-communicate: explain what you mean, explain why you’re doing or saying what you’re doing. And get curious about the other person’s experience. Ask yourself, how might others experience me? How might I be making an impression I don’t intend? Finally, become adept at reading others’ feedback so that you can more accurately assess the impact of your words and actions in real time.
Punch Your Leadership Ticket Daily
Just because you have a title on your door or a reserved parking spot doesn’t make you the leader. Just because people followed you yesterday, doesn’t mean they’ll follow you today. The legitimacy of your leadership has to be earned anew, with each action and behavior.
It’s easy to think of your leadership as a one-time purchase, valid for all transactions. But the legitimacy of your role has to be earned anew, moment by moment, through attitudes, behaviors, and communication: “Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.”
While your positional power gives you the right to be where you are, it’s your influence, your personal power, enacted through interactions and behavior that makes you effective in your role.