Issue 1.10 | April 2010

In this Article: how to overcome the barriers to leadership posed by your power and the power of others.

By Jonathan Wilson

I first met Sifiso Nkabinde in a clandestine meeting in the back room of what South Africans call a “panel beater” (a vehicle body shop).  The secrecy was essential to the success of the peace process that my organization was seeking to broker between politicians engaged in chronic and violent conflict in this semi-rural region of South Africa.  Each year hundreds were losing their lives.  Secrecy was also necessary for our survival.  Meeting Nkabinde was both difficult and dangerous because he was a target and constantly on the move from safe-house to safe-house.

Nkabinde had power.  As a national leader (general secretary of his party) and a local big man, he had people who would obey his orders (I once sat with him in his Mercedes while he gave military-like instructions to members of his plainclothes security detail positioned along our route).  He had access to party funds, and of course he had guns.  But as I got to know him I discovered that the primary rewards of his power were risk, resistance and stress – and ultimately, death.  On a sunny Saturday morning, a year after our first meeting, he was gunned down in a street in the town centre.  Sifiso Nkabinde tried to lead, but he was not allowed to.

Your leadership environment may not include the same high stakes of life and death.  But the principles are the same.  And the assumptions: many falsely equate power with leadership.  Many a frustrated junior leader anticipates that when they enter senior positions, they will inherit the power necessary to achieve what they believe is best.  They look forward, not to rank, soldiers and weapons, but their corporate equivalents: authority, direct reports and money.

Here are three key reasons why having institutional power does not necessarily result in effective leadership.

Firstly, there are stakeholders for whom your power is irrelevant.  I have been both a senior VP and a CEO, with responsibilities in both roles that ranged across the globe.  In such roles there are tremendous, complex pressures that come from customers, peers, reports, shareholders, board directors and more.  And somewhere in this jumble of often contradictory demands lies one’s own sense of the “right” way forward.  If you didn’t have that sense, you wouldn’t be a leader.  But exerting your power will not resolve stakeholder complexity or pressure.

Secondly, leaders reliant on institutional power forget that their followers have power too – organic power.  No amount of positional power will ever overcome the barrier of unwilling people.  Along with the temptation to exploit political power is the similar temptation to wield intellectual power and reason people into line.  But people tend to view such rationalization as spin, not least because they have their own, deeply rationalized perspectives.  Organic resistance is tremendously difficult to overcome without crushing it, and such actions inevitably backfire (as Nkabinde discovered at the cost of his own life).  Most importantly, using your power to remove resistance does not generate the one thing every successful leader needs: followers.

Thirdly, even capable leaders with winsome characters and virtuous agendas have enemies.  My former boss in South Africa, Michael Cassidy, was well known and admired throughout South Africa, Africa and even certain circles in the West, where he has often addressed leadership conferences and governments on leadership and reconciliation.  Yet conservatives vilified him as a traitor and a Communist, while liberation activists thought he was too soft and conservative.  He endured public libel, threats to his life and harassment.  Sometimes he was just marginalized, which can be the most frustrating form of opposition.  Whatever power you have represents a threat to your enemies and therefore they will fight it.

Gaining Permission to Lead

No leadership comes without permission from followers, and permission cannot be forced.  Here are three suggestions for how to gain permission to lead.

Firstly, take responsibility for the problem for which you envision a solution.  Blaming and complaining are not leadership qualities.  It is rather a matter of recognizing that leadership is not only about the vision, but about the often difficult journey to realizing the vision.  It is a compelling leader who is not only honest about the problems faced, but also any part he or she has played in those problems.

Secondly, identify what you stand for, and why it is worth paying a price to see it come into effect.  Know your soul.  Articulate it to yourself and to those becoming your followers.  This is the only thing that will equip you and them to endure resistance, challenges and outright hostility.  Only leaders who endure will see success.

Thirdly, build a vision stronger than the one you first dreamed of by harnessing the deepest of your stakeholders’ desires and the best of their ideas.  In my own leadership experience there isn’t a good idea I’ve had that hasn’t been improved on by the diverse contributions of others around me.  Furthermore, this approach will also win the buy-in of others.  As Margaret Wheatley, the systems specialist, has said, “People support what they create and resist what they are excluded from.”  The only barrier between you and the richness of your envisioned solution is your ego.

The more one’s leadership depends upon the wielding of power, the more superficial and temporary its success.  Deep and lasting success can only be achieved through leadership characterized by initiative, conviction and a focus on the value of others.

Another soul insight from

© Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

Photo, Bodyguard in South Africa, © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.