“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 that 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.
What does it take for a leader not to succumb to the feelings of powerlessness and thus lose 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 is hat powerlessness is experienced as threat, something our limbic system is programmed to respond to. It is the same hormonal response a person would experience held at gunpoint or chased by a tiger. Under the threat of powerlessness, we seek to protect ourselves at any cost. This is part of the trap a leader can fall into—and it happens in all sorts of contexts:
- A CEO who, out of anxiety and fear, micromanages her team to the point that they cannot work for her.
- Doctors who coldly rush through informing their patients about their disease because they’re afraid of the patients’ emotional responses
- Executives who refuse to have one-on-one conversations with the women they lead, because they fear it would be inappropriate or lead to perceptions that they are having affairs
- A manager who avoids intervening in a staff dispute, paralyzed by his fear of conflict.
John Adams, another President, famously said, “It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power.” Feeling weak leads to poor decision-making, because we’re too caught up in our own feelings, and fail to think of what’s best for others. It can lead us to hide our mistakes, fake knowledge, or, feeling cornered and defenseless, lash out and attack.
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 strength needed for leaders to use their “powers” to be powerful is the inner strength of managing their own emotional states, of managing the inevitable—and surprising—moment when they will feel the limits of their power.