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Leadership, Power, and Responsibility: A Delicate Balancing Act
Leadership and power are not one and the same. Power represents potential, as in, “I technically have the power to order you to do it my way,” but leaders who make it their sole tool don’t remain leaders for long. The collateral damage from metaphorically slashing and burning one’s way through life is enough to sink even the strongest organization.
Neither are leadership and responsibility the same thing. Responsibility carries with it the expectation of others acting responsibly. When one person feels responsible for every action that takes place within an organization, then organizational paralysis can be the result.
Power and responsibility must be balanced carefully, whether you’re raising children, commanding an army, or preparing for a merger. Skillfully balancing power and responsibility benefits not only the leader but the team and the organization as a whole.
Power: Using It Wisely
In the world of physics, power is a rate of doing work. It requires a change in the physical universe as well as a specific time period in which that change happens. In a corporate setting, there are many similarities. A leader may promise to have a detailed, 300-page report on a client’s desk by Thursday noon and may well deliver. But using power unwisely (such as when a leader promises unrealistic results) can result in resentment on the part of the people doing the work, or delivery of a product that is not of sufficient quality. When a person rules by fiat, he or she must be prepared to live with the risks, including the risks to his or her position as a leader.
Responsibility: Reliability and Accountability
The word “responsibility” traces its origins to the Latin “respondere,” which means “to respond.” This idea of responding to a situation evolved into a more nuanced meaning of being answerable. While responsibility primarily means that one is accountable for actions, it also incorporates connotations of trustworthiness, obligation, and reliability.
Unlike power, responsibility implies consequences. The difference between, “I order you to finish that report by 4 p.m.” and “I need you to be responsible for the final report. How soon can you turn it around and be confident about the quality?” is the difference between lack of trust and trust in someone else’s abilities.
Responsibility also implies a sort of transitive property. If I trust you to complete a task and you don’t do it, I bear some of the responsibility because I trusted you when perhaps I shouldn’t have. Having responsibility and delegating responsibility require a relationship based on understanding and trust.
How Your Organization Benefits from Balanced Power and Responsibility
There are situations when wielding power is appropriate. Think of a bystander responding to a car accident. The appropriate response when people inevitably gather is to give specific orders rather than thinking it through and considering the options. “You, the woman in blue, I need you to call 911. Man in the brown coat, I need to borrow your coat to keep him from going into shock. Motorcycle guy: can you please help direct traffic around us until the police arrive?”
Analogous situations happen at work too, like when there is a security breach or a key piece of machinery breaks. Acting swiftly and wielding power appropriately can contain the damage and potentially save lives.
But responsibility has a larger role because most of the time you’re not operating in crisis mode. Taking responsibility and delegating responsibility not only holds everyone accountable in a fair manner, it empowers others to become better at what they do.
Empowering Your Team to Excel
Leadership coaching isn’t about teaching those in a position of power how to wield that power. It’s about helping them accept responsibility, know when to use power, and when to assign responsibility appropriately. When you demonstrate responsibility, and when you allow team members to assume responsibility (along with the glory and blame that can go along with it), you have a better team and a better organization overall.
My most successful leadership coaching clients are the ones who know how to balance power and responsibility. They understand that reward and risk usually increase in proportion to each other, and they also understand that they are not indispensable. In fact, they shouldn’t want to be indispensable. If they learn to accept their own responsibility as well as delegate various responsibilities, they allow everyone the opportunity to excel, and when that happens, everyone wins.