In Leadership theory, power is the ability to influence and affect other people’s actions to produce a particular outcome. There are two types of power:
Position Power results from a position within a hierarchy. A manager of a team, an executive, or a member of an executive board – they can all exert power because of their position within an organisation.
Personal Power comes from expertise, competence, and credibility. It is based on demonstrated knowledge, previous successes, and relationships with other people. Personal power is not bound to a position in a hierarchy; anyone can build and exert position power.
When a new manager joins a team, the team looks to them for direction. Will there be a new team structure? Will there be new objectives and goals? Will processes be changed? This expectation results from position power.
From here, a team can go two ways.
The team continues to work fine. A few things are changed based on the new manager’s feedback, but the disruption is minimal. The new manager trusts the team that they can deliver and make the right decisions. Vice versa, the team starts to trust and follow the new manager. Over time the new manager demonstrates knowledge, experience, and humility. The manager listens because they are new to the product, the team’s ways of working, and history – and they can openly admit that. Mutual trust is built, which eventually manifests in the manager’s personal power.
Or the team heads in the opposite direction. The new manager shows up and questions everything. The team is restructured, but the manager fails to explain their reasoning: What are the problems with the existing team structure, and why is the change necessary? The manager challenges the system architecture and technology choices and asks to explore alternatives without understanding the current architecture first. The manager’s decisions seem erratic and random. The team begins to question the new manager’s as their leader. The new manager has failed to build position power. Productivity is in decline; morale is impacted, discussions about the team’s direction are more heated. The shields are down, and, eventually, people leave.
Position power is handed to a person when they land a job with a particular title. Personal power has to be built over time – and this is hard. It takes patience, trust, and demonstrated expertise and credibility. Failing to create personal power can wear down a functioning team in just a couple of weeks. Personal power is more critical to a leader’s success and the basis for their ability to influence.
A lack of personal power is why some managers fail.