Four Problems with Power for Progressive Leaders

Discomfort around power and authority can be a serious challenge for progressive leaders and organizations. I’d like to introduce a practical tool and a framework to help diagnose and solve this common and deep-seated problem.

First, imagine this scenario. Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation:

A relatively new ED had been promoted from within. Struggling with his own feelings about empowerment, he was ambivalent about being too directive. Compounding the challenge, his young staff were resistant whenever he did try and take charge. Things deteriorated to the point where the staff organized and brought their complaints to an unsympathetic board of directors. All this internal tension and dissension took increasing amounts of energy away from program work and undermined the power and effectiveness of the organization.

I wrote about this problem in What is Transformation?:

Many of us came to activism in reaction to abuses of power. We often carry a deep-seeded mistrust of power, and may identify more with feeling powerless than powerful. It is remarkable how many of the activist leaders I have trained and coached feel awkward about exercising their appropriate authority.

After rebelling against authority for many years, it can be hard to make the switch to having power. Many leaders try to hide or deny the realities of power differentials in their organizations, much to everyone’s confusion. Others, acting out of awkwardness around their power, end up being unskillful or overbearing. Some leaders wrestle with concerns that people won’t like them if they’re too powerful. Too many of our leaders hold back from making tough or unpopular decisions, such as confronting poor performance or firing.

When progressive leaders actually do stand strong and clear in their authority, our collective confusion around power often leads us to tear down our own leaders.

Our staffs mirror the ambivalence of our leaders. On the one hand, leaders are continually asked to give us clear direction. Yet the day you become a leader, you also become the screen on which people project their lifetime of negative experiences with authority, abuse of power, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. Activists who spend their days speaking truth to power and fighting against “The System” sometimes have a hard time making the switch to being respectful of authority in their own organizations.

I was the former board chair of Greenpeace USA where our motto was, “No compromise!” Imagine trying to facilitate a room full of several hundred members trying to reach agreement, all coming from an orientation of “No compromise!”

The result of this collective discomfort around power means that our institutions are often hampered, even incapacitated, by unclear lines of authority, murky decision-making processes, and lack of accountability. In order to win power politically, we must fully claim our own power.

We see at least four common sources of confusion around power in social change organizations:

  1. Awkward or ambivalent leaders
  2. Lack of respect for hierarchy
  3. Disempowerment of staff
  4. Inappropriate use of power

In our free tool: Confusion Around Power: A Challenge to Leadership, we discuss best practices to address each of these challenges. I hope you’ll download the full tool, which goes into much greater detail. But here are the headlines:

Challenge #1. Awkward or ambivalent leaders

  • Remember you’re in good company. Your lack of ease with holding power doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be a leader
  • Connect with your purpose. Remember why you do this work—you can draw strength from this.
  • Think power with rather than power over. Power is not a limited commodity. Your right use of power can inspire rather than diminish others.
  • Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’re not perfect and never will be. You’ll make lots of mistakes—that comes with the role.
  • Find support. Leaders tend to feel isolated in their organizations. Seek out others with whom you can relax and share your concerns.
  • Invest in training, coaching and mentoring. Most of us have had way too little of this. There’s help available—make use of it.

 Challenge #2. Lack of Comfort with Hierarchy Among Staff

  • Be relaxed in your authority. Your discomfort is contagious, and your ease helps relax those you lead.
  • Establish clear rules about how power is to be exercised. Not having clear rules of engagement brings out the worst in everyone.
  • Enforce the rules consistently. As a leader, you must both model the rules and establish a culture of accountability.

Challenge #3. Disempowerment Among Staff

  • Be attentive to the dynamics at play. Those with more power tend to be oblivious to the challenges facing those with less power.
  • Lower the barriers to communication with leadership. Be aware that it’s challenging to speak truth to power, and create good processes to help level the playing field.
  • Attend to systemic issues. Don’t focus only on individual shortcomings. What aspects of organizational structures, processes and culture may be contributing to staff feeling disempowered?

Challenge #4. Inappropriate Use of Power

  • Invest in ongoing personal development for leaders. We need it!
  • Ensure checks and balances. Make sure that all power isn’t vested in a single person. Too many organizations have self-destructed due to the vulnerabilities or blind spots of a founder or leader.
  • Implement performance evaluations. We don’t know what we don’t know. Make sure all leaders receive regular meaningful feedback on their impact.
  • Ensure protection for staff. There must be clear, safe channels for staff to use when they are having substantive issues with their leaders.

Too much of our precious resources and energy are drained by confusion around power. As leaders, it is our responsibility to deal head-on with the personal, behavioral and structural issues that contribute to confusion around power. By doing this, we can liberate and align the power in our organizations to help create a more just and sustainable society.

Want to learn more? Please download the free tool: Confusion Around Power: A Challenge to Leadership

What challenges have you faced around power and authority in progressive organizations? What solutions have worked for you?