On power, responsibility, Lord Acton and Spiderman


Photo by natalie’s new york

When I was serving in the Israeli Air force I used to conduct training for course commanders. It was usually a course given to the best commanders who were promoted to be senior commanders and given the task of handling a team of commanders in order to deliver a training course for new soldiers. Their promotion usually meant that they came from within their team and had to lead and manage their former equal teammates and personal friends. This created a lot of fears about the personal relationships inside the team and regarding the respect they are will receive from their team-members.

Training session after training session I saw the same response to this fear. The new team leaders tried to hide their power. In the statements to the team they always planned to say something on the line of: “I am not you commander, I am your friend. We will decide together. I don’t want to impose anything on you”.

This story came up to mind this week while I was reading an article for my organizational behaviour course. It is an article from 1992 by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University Graduate School of Business professor, titled: “Understanding power in organizations”. One of Pfeffer’s claims in this article is that we have an ambivalent approach to power. We all know it is important, but we don’t want to be known as using it, because we know it can be used for bad things. A short quote:

If leadership involves skill at developing and exercising power and influence as well as the will to do so, then perhaps one of the causes of the so-called leadership crisis in organizations in the United States is just this attempt to sidestep issues of power.

Yes. Power can be used to do bad things. But we all know the famous saying by Lord Acton: “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely“. Well, I might be naïve. But I actually prefer a less skilled philosopher, but that in this case, one that makes a better point. Spiderman. “With great power comes great responsibility“. Yes, power can corrupt. But if it corrupts us, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Yes, power can corrupt, but that should not stop us from doing things (link in Hebrew). The fact that we get the opportunity to yield power, as managers, leaders (or commanders) is a gift given to us. We can do with great things, for good or bad. It depends upon us.

In essence this is what I always tried to tell those young commanders. The fact that you have power does not change by the way you present yourselves. The fact that you chose to hide your powers, to hide from your responsibilities, is what hinders the effectiveness of your leadership. The power you are given is something to embrace, so make sure you do something good with. Having power does not mean you have to make all the decisions yourselves, although some people with power act like that. It means that your bear the responsibility.

In the end of my course notes in organizational behaviour on he subject of influence and power I found the following thought:

Creating power for subordinates does not imply a reduction of your own power. You can maintain your own power and increase the power of others. Rather than cutting up the pie, make the pie bigger!


So, how do you, as a manager or a leader treat the power you are given? What do you intend to do with it? How will you bear the responsibility?


4 Responses to “On power, responsibility, Lord Acton and Spiderman”

  1. ronnie shub Says:

    Dear Elad,
    Whilest reading your article and agree to what you have written about power and leadership, I should add one important saying. Leadership is something you can get but not take. What i mean is that you should get and recieve the power to lead from your employees but never will it be correct to force it.

    Here , from Hong Kong, Ella and I are having fun while all other Israelies are having Sedder with their families. So don’t think you are the only one without his famiely.

    BTW, Did you read Lior’s last email ?

    Take care

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Ronnie.
    I agrre with you. Still, in many situation in life, we are managers of people before we had the opportunity to “win them over”. And still, we need to make desicions. my point was more about the use of the ower you do have, be it strctural, or won!
    Thanks for your comment and Hag Samech!

  3. What can mangers learn from the Milgram Experiment? « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] managerial positions. The fact that we have the power of authority is a given. The fact that this power comes with responsibility is also a given. But most of the time managers don’t use this power to bring people to perform […]

  4. Power, corruption and sustainability – a tale about giving back « The Secular Bible Blog Says:

    […] and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. While I think there is a sense of truth in the sentence, I have written elsewhere, that I prefer a saying by a lesser philosopher: “with great power, comes great […]

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