How do you get to the top as a responsible leader

How do you get to the top as a responsible leader?

What gets you to the top in Google, is not the same as what gets you to the top in a legal practice, an FMCG environment or an SME. 

For example, expertise may be valued in a legal practice but will get you nowhere in a business that delivers social care. While charisma and the management of meaning work in an advertising consultancy, authority is more powerful in the civil service or an energy company.

Context matters, particularly for responsible leaders.  So I want to share an example of what can happen to responsible leaders when the source of their power does not fit what is valued in their organisation. 

I am reading a book by Rory Stewart, who is an ex Conservative MP. The book is called Politics at the Edge. It’s an expose of politics and a master text on power – who has it, the source of it and how to get it or lose it. 

Stewart is a decent person, and starts out as a responsible leader if you like. But he is working in politics which is characterized by what I call, an egoic power culture. 

This is characterized by the following five rules 

  1. Don’t rock the (power) boat
    • Never do anything to challenge the power of those above you. 
  2. Be flagrantly loyal
    • Don’t just be loyal – be overt about it! Your bosses have to believe you have their backs and will not rock the boat.
  3. Obey me and I’ll protect you
    • Obey the leader and you will be rewarded, even promoted regardless of competence.
  4. Deny and cover up anything that threatens the power base
    • In virtually every corporate scandal, awareness of wrongdoing has been in the organisation for many years. It has simply been denied and troublemakers sacked. 
  5. Shoot the messenger.
    • Unfortunately, whistleblowers often suffer very negative consequences and may even be blacklisted for doing the right thing.

Responsible leaders tend to tread all over these rules without knowing it and often wonder why they don’t get promoted.  They can then become angry, bitter and disillusioned. 

And this is what happened to Rory Stewart. For example, he was told on day one that if he dared to vote against the government on anything, he would never be promoted (notice the use of reward and punishment as a power source).  Stewart did vote against his government and was left languishing on the bank benches for over four years. 

The disappointment got to him.  His frustrated ambition played on his mind. Eventually, he found himself complying with the 5 egoic rules and playing the game. This is what he says in retrospect:

    ‘In short, while I complained about my colleagues and talked them down, the real person whom I despised in all of this was myself.’

He had lost his ‘why’ and had slowly and imperceptibly conformed to the egoic power culture.

So there are two things that are important to gain power. Number 1 – accrue the sources of power that are valued in your organization (see previous posts). Number 2 – acquire the trust of relevant power holders.  If the vast majority of the power holders are egoic, self-interested and self-serving, then you may be in the wrong organization. Make sure you know how and why staying with your current employer suits your own purposes. 

How to determine the power culture in your organization.

  1. Identify the key leaders in your organization. Don’t forget informal leaders i.e. people who are trusted by the formal leaders. 
  2. Add leaders whom you know i.e. your own boss, their colleagues who may be quite junior but who seem to be ‘going places’. 
  3. What source of power do they have (see previous post on sources of power). Notice, if you can, how they spend their time (focusing on the task, networking, talking to external stakeholders, managing upwards?). Notice their messaging – what message do they consistently seem to promote and what do they not say? 
  4. How do they dress?  How do they carry themselves? How do they speak – tone, speed, warmth, directness? See this Ted video by Amy Cuddy for more on this. 
  5. Can you spot any patterns which might suggest the kinds of people that get on in your organization?
  6. How does this sit with you? Is this something you can emulate for the sake of your own purpose or is this something that sends shivers down your spine!? 
  7. How will you use this information for the benefit of your own goals?

Finally, you can draw a power map of your organisation’s players. Don’t forget to include those who have informal authority, those who are trusted by the formal leaders who may include personal assistants, those in advisory roles or even those who they share lifts with in the morning drive to work. 

Hopefully, you will see a bit more how power works in your organization and how you can tap into it. 


About the Author: Karen Blakeley

Karen Blakeley

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