Power from the people – the leadership conundrum

Kevin Lawrence, managing director of Odyssey Group, argues that leaders can only lead because others choose to follow.

Being a leader is an exercise in balance. On the one hand it requires a deep-rooted self-belief in your ability to take wise decisions and successfully overcome obstacles. On the other, it requires humility to see your role in context. Leaders are part of – and rely on – the community they operate within.


That appreciation of context gives leaders two vital things. The first is a clear vision of just how much your company is capable of achieving. Being aware of others allows us to become aware of the potential of others. Leaders with this perspective understand how their company can become more than the sum of its parts.

The second insight that an appreciation of context brings is the understanding that power is a gift – one bestowed by the people who agree to follow your lead. It is a two-way process and it can be revoked.

Authority is a gift

It can be easy for leaders to forget this. After all, there are qualities – some innate (intelligence and a positive outlook), some learned (knowledge and skills) – which equip individuals to take on leadership roles. It’s no surprise that leaders, proud of their achievements, can start to confuse ‘being given the opportunity to lead’, with ‘having the right to lead’. From there, it’s easy for them to start believing that they possess ‘causal power’: that they can will things into being. These leaders forget that what they really possess is ‘relational power’: they are able to lead, because others choose to follow.

This distinction matters. When leaders start believing they possess causal power, they start to lose empathy. Our values guide our actions. If a leader believes power is centred only on them, the needs and beliefs of the people around them assume less importance. The leader listens less. The company becomes less inclusive. Staff creativity and commitment start to decline.

Consensus, not coercion

In contrast, the leader who understands that their power is relational approach their role with a different set of underlying values. They understand that one of their key roles is to build shared purpose. They listen. They seek to be inclusive. They create co-operation. Back in the 1980s researchers at the University of Minnesota reviewed over fifty years’ worth of research into the value of co-operative goal orientation. The research showed that ‘cooperation is superior to competition in promoting achievement and productivity’.

There is another benefit. Relational leadership, by virtue of honouring honest communication, enables productive change to occur throughout the company. Problems are owned, rather than ignored and solutions are found.

Leaders who achieve respect and career longevity possess many qualities. But the foundation for their success starts with their mind-set. Understanding that power is relational, teaches one of the most fundamental lessons: that the respect we accord to other people is what is reflected back to us, in the form of trust, loyalty and growth.

Leave a Reply