Power is Good
I don’t believe our current presidential race is surprising. Like all jobs, you attract what you reward and the system (or company), it’s effectiveness and functioning, will always determine the quality of the applicant. David McClelland, an American Psychologist, developed a pretty vibrant theory of motivation and achievement and along with David Burnham applied it to the work and effectiveness of leaders. They wrote about it in popular HBR article called Power Is the Great Motivator (Originally published in January, 1995).
McClelland and Burnham discuss three different motivations for managers. They found the least effective manager was one who is most motivated by affiliation, or for whom being liked is more important than the need for power or achievement. They found that power is an important motivator for the other two types of manager. One of the types is motivated by personal power, and their achievement and success is what matters most to them. The other manager is motivated by institutional power, and McClelland and Burnham called this manager “the institutional manager”. This manager uses power effectively to influence others in service of the organization and it’s success. Both types of power motivation are actually more effective than the manager motivated by affiliation. For an organization, institutional power is more effective and it creates better outcomes.
This theory explains so much of what I see in organizations and institutions (and yes, our government). Leaders motivated by personal power are everywhere, and they can actually be highly successful. They are not usually known for their people development and they are not good at creating cohesive teams. The higher up they are promoted, the less trusted they are by their people because everyone knows that they are in it for their own achievement. Personal power leaders hit a tipping point where they can no longer drive all the results themselves. They have to start influencing the achievement of others. This is different work. It’s more difficult, and it won’t be as satisfying for them to help other people achieve. So they find all sorts of ways to hang on to the power they should be sharing with those they need to influence. The personal power manager may be less satisfied at the higher-levels of leadership but they still get promoted and stay. Power is hard to relinquish and so is the executive pay.
By which type of power do you think our current presidential candidates are motivated?
Talented institutional leaders often get discouraged, especially in publicly traded organizations. One of my clients told me that she didn’t want to be considered for a c-suite role at her organization because she didn’t want to “become a jerk”. She told me that, “They all just care about their own power. I care about the whole organization. I won’t fit into their club and honestly, I don’t want to.” I have heard many versions of this through the years and it’s upsetting. It means that those leaders most motivated to influence achievement through others, are less likely to go after top jobs because the don’t’ want to be surrounded by a team who are in it for themselves. Organizations can change this. You have to be intentional and set up your performance and reward systems so that they promote institutional leaders. Power is good, both types, but one is better. Which one will you promote?
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Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.