“I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them. … That’s all the powers of the President amount to.”
Although this quotation is attributed to Harry Truman, any President could have said it. Since the founding of the United States, those who have occupied the nation’s highest office have remarked on their inability to lead in the ways they would like to lead, and bemoaned the obstacles standing in the way of their political agendas.
Over a half-century after Truman’s lament, Barack Obama remarked: “What I didn’t fully appreciate, and nobody can appreciate until they’re in the position, is how decentralized power is in this system.”
Obama’s successor, President Trump, voted into an office Jefferson described as “years of torment and hatred,” has complained about the arduousness of the office, grumbling that “I thought it would be easier.”
Richard Neustadt’s classic tome on power, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, in which Truman’s quote appears, is a study on the limits of power, not on its limitlessness, as one could expect.
As Neustadt states, “’Powers are no guarantee of power.”
One need not get elected President to witness or experience this phenomenon. People perceived by others to possess high degrees of power can and do complain of feeling marginalized, persecuted, and disempowered. The white nationalists who marched through Charlottesville, Virginia in August, did so because they felt threatened by minority groups, whom they, astoundingly, see as more powerful, as witnessed by their chants, “Jews will not replace us.”
James Damore, the former Google engineer who lost his job after he wrote and circulated a manifesto criticizing the company’s diversity policies, and asserting that “biological” differences between genders make men better suited to stressful jobs, claims that Google actually discriminated against him. Speaking to Business Insider, he compared his experience as a “closeted” conservative at Google to “being gay in the 1950s.”
The distinction Neustadt makes—between formal “powers” and the power to influence and impact—is critical to effective leadership. Unfortunately, the feelings of powerlessness can eclipse virtually everything else, up to and including the powers within a high-ranking role.
John Adams, another President, famously said, “It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power.”
This is the trap a leader can fall into, feeling weak in a leadership role, often expressed by:
- Poor decision making, too caught up in their own feelings and failing to think of what’s best for others
- Hiding their mistakes, faking knowledge out of fear of being found out
- Feeling cornered and defenseless, and therefore lashing out and attacking others
- Failing to hold people accountable or intervene in a dispute, paralyzed by fear of conflict.
So what does it take for a leader to avoid such feelings of powerlessness and thus lose our effectiveness?
It takes strength, but not just any kind of strength. It takes emotional strength, in particular, the ability to regulate emotions.
The surprising truth about feeling powerless is that powerlessness is experienced as a threat, something our limbic system is programmed to respond to. It is the same hormonal response a person would experience if they were held at gunpoint or chased by a tiger.
When we feel powerless, we seek to protect ourselves at any cost.
This is the fatal mismatch that accounts for a great deal of power misuse: the gap between the power one feels and the power one has, between a self-perceived sense of power and objective authority.
When we wield power from a powerless state of mind, we do so poorly. The truth is,
To lead well, leaders must feel powerful.
One’s feeling powerful or powerless should not come from our role or position, but should instead be gained by learning to manage our own emotional states and remaining prepared for the inevitable—and surprising—moment when we feel the limits of our own power.
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Learn more about how Personal Power can make you a more effective leader in my book, Power: A User’s Guide.