How to balance the yin yang of power

Position, expertise or personal? John van Maurik seeks a balance in management styles
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The Independent Online
"IN THIS world you are either a predator or a grazer, and I know which I intend to be," said a young manager who had been referred to me by his organisation for coaching. "You see, it's all about having the power to get others to do what you want," he explained. "In the end, work, life, being effective - it's all about power."

"What about authority?" I countered - and, getting a blank look in reply, began to see more clearly why he had been sent.

And, of course, you do see the exercise of power - or should I say, the battle between power and authority - in all walks of life, especially in business. It emerges in the most unlikely forms. Take, for example, the managing director's secretary; in hierarchical terms she is junior to most of those reporting to her boss and has little overt authority. However, she can frustrate senior people and make their lives difficult by effectively denying them access to the inner sanctum. She can even advise people about the boss's mood and what approach is most likely to work. To put it bluntly, she can limit people's aspirations and success. Not for nothing have aspirants taken the trouble to "butter up the gatekeeper" since time immemorial. Just think of James Bond and Miss Moneypenny.

Despite the success of the Moneypennys of this world, power alone is a transitory and pretty meaningless concept. So, as organisations change shape via delayering and the growth of project-based teamwork, it becomes more necessary to examine where a manager's real power - or authority - lies.

Try this short test. In each of the following four clusters, mark the statement that you consider most important for helping businesses and the people in them to prosper.

First cluster:

A) If someone is holding down a senior job they must be cleverer than those in more junior positions.

B) Knowledge of the business environment and marketplace dynamics is the most important attribute of a business leader.

C) Success comes to those who take time to support and develop colleagues and subordinates.

Second cluster:

A) People who hold senior positions deserve respect from subordinates.

B) The ability to perform your job competently is important in gaining the respect of others.

C) The ability to inspire others comes from showing you trust them and not operating hidden agendas.

Third cluster:

A) Those at the top are paid to make important decisions. The buck stops with them.

B) A person's ability to understand the organisation's customers and meet their expectations should define his or her worth.

C) Creativity, fun and motivation are all linked in creating outstanding performance and must be encouraged.

Fourth cluster:

A) Status and all its trappings are important as they reward achievement and remind people of the hierarchy.

B) A thorough knowledge of the organisation's products, systems and processes is essential for personal success.

C) Progress can be achieved by debate, asking good questions and listening to the answer.

If you mainly answered A, then you probably consider positional authority to be the most important form. This is the authority that is invested in the position or job that the senior individual holds. In many organisations certain jobs carry authority just because they are senior.Thus, when a new person moves into one of these positions, others decide that he or she must be impressive and responsible, simply because of the job itself - this will last until the manager proves them wrong.

And how can this happen? Positional authority is a fragile thing that is dependent upon two other less tangible, but potentially more important, foundation stones.

If you tended to answer B, then you probably think that expert authority is the most important. This form is based on the degree of knowledge that the executive has and exhibits. Whatever the type of business you are in it is essential to understand how it works and its internal processes as well as the markets in which it operates. It is not necessary to understand every nut and bolt: however, a general understanding is essential in order to be able to make good decisions that other people trust. Not for nothing did Tom Peters advocate managing by wandering around. It brings you up- to-date information as well as showing others that you are interested in them.

This brings us to the third type of authority - personal authority. If you tended to answer C then you probably think that this is the most important. It is dependent upon how you act with and relate to other people within. Consequently, those who do not act fairly, morally, reasonably or decisively - those who rely on the threat of sanctions rather than persuasion - are not likely to enjoy this form of authority for long.

All three types of authority are important but I contend that positional authority is dependent upon the other two. Fail to gain credibility or lose respect, and it is just a matter of time before it evaporates.

While expert authority has always been vital, there are indications that the star of personal authority is on the rise. But only the fool will not bother to seek a balance between the hard and softer behaviours existing within what we call "management"; this balance could be termed the yin yang of strategic leadership.

It is easy for the passion that gives life and driving energy to the leader's strategy to become intolerance, for the overwhelming conviction of what needs to be done to make the executive forget that there are people involved. The process of balancing the passion with compassion means acknowledging other people's attitudes, expectations and fears. This does not obviate the need for tough decisions but does mean that you should never forget that they directly affect other people's lives and sometimes the lives of whole communities - act with this in mind.

Gaining that essential balance involves substituting authority for power. The key elements of both expert and personal authority are something that you can only grow through hard work and persistence - but the results will be worthwhile and long-lasting. As Machiavelli once said, "Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times".

John van Maurik is a consultant at PA Consulting's management centre at Sundridge Park.