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The paradox of power: to serve myself or others?

IbyIMD+ Published 12 July 2022 in Magazine • 5 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Leaders must strike the right balance between their own needs and the needs of others.


Power often gets a bad rap. We think of dictators who unleash destructive power to serve themselves and their own financial interests. Or domineering bosses who use threats and fear to coerce staff into working long hours. Yet power can also be a force for good if exercised positively. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, for example, has used her power to build trust with people by being empathetic, daring, humble and consistent.  

Within the world of business, power has often been associated with a “command and control” style of leadership. For any micro-managers still hankering towards total authority, the pandemic should have been the final wake-up call that this type of leadership no longer works. A big lesson from the past two years is that people want to be given the power to manage their own time and perform best when they feel good about the work they are doing. 

Leaders today must strike the right balance between their own desires and the needs of others. In the highest-performing teams, leaders know or can learn when they should give up power and pass on the decision-making baton to others within the organization. So how do we go about empowering others to make decisions? 

1. Establish the desire for power within the team 

As a first step, leaders should gauge the willingness of their employees to take on power. If you have a passive team, they may prefer to be spoon-fed decisions without having to assume personal responsibility. Yet, with the dizzying pace of digitalization and the rise of complex challenges facing organizations, companies will need staff capable of making quick decisions. If certain team members can’t be coaxed to desire more power, it might be time to switch them out. 

2. Change the hierarchical structure 

In the military, it is often those in the field who make the decisions based on the inputs they receive from their surroundings. The same should be true in business. Those at the bottom who are close to customers and information should be empowered to make decisions rather than passing them up and down the chain of command. To enable people to do this, it is important that they know they are cared for by those with authority. They should feel that you, as a leader, are a secure base standing behind them.

In the highest-performing teams, leaders know or can learn when they should give up power and pass on the decision-making baton to others within the organization.

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3. Provide a clear vision and strategy 

Before team members can be let loose to make decisions, it is important to clarify the vision and strategy through consistent communication. This way employees should be aware of the parameters and the extent of their decision-making power. If team members end up making the wrong decision, they shouldn’t be punished. Instead, if they are empowered, they will take responsibility for their actions and learn from any mistakes. Equally, leaders should pay attention to the language they use to empower others. Avoid ambiguous phrases such as “strive for your best” and “be stronger” and use more positive and concrete language such as “can you explore options” or “recommend alternatives”. 

4. Give people the training and tools to succeed 

People can’t be expected to succeed it they lack the technical skills or competence to do the job. Make sure people are given the confidence to make decisions by providing the necessary training, tools, and talent development to do their roles successfully. Taking risks is important in making decisions and should be based on skills, talent and knowledge. Empowerment is knowing what to do and doing what you know even when uncertainty exists. 

5. Help people who are missing power  

A team member who bullies, is aggressive, or talks too much is, more often than not, displaying symptoms of powerlessness or unmet desires. In order to not let this derail the performance of the whole group, team leaders need to engage this person in dialogue to make them aware of their behavior and figure out what drives and motivates them. Are they after a promotion? Are they dissatisfied with their tasks? Do they want to be involved in a project that makes them feel they are making the world a better place?  

As the old adage goes, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. People often rise to the top based on their positive reputation and capacity to influence. Yet once they are handed more power, they have to strive hard to continue to wield it in a positive way rather than succumbing to impulsive, self-serving actions. This is the power paradox. 

But the leaders who have held the most enduring power, such as Nelson Mandela, are those who use their influence to advance the interests of others by showing empathy, open-mindedness, fairness, courage and generosity.  

One leader who continues to put the needs of others before his own self-interests is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The former comedian famously turned down a US evacuation offer, responding: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Through selfie-style videos shot in the streets, Zelensky has used his words and body language to bond with the Ukrainian people. He has motivated them to fight for their country by sending the message: I am taking the same risks as you. 

With the pandemic having shifted the power balance between employers and workers, business leaders will have to step up to become servant leaders. Among the top reasons Americans quit the workforce in droves last year, according to a Pew Research Center survey, was feeling disrespected. To hold on to staff, managers will have to find ways to make them feel valued and pay more attention to what motivates them and gives them purpose. The ones who feel good about their work tend to be the most empowered.


George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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