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The Limits of Power December 17, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Organizational dynamics.
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About seven years ago I needed to hire a couple of first-level managers for a growing team. There were quite a few people already in the group who believed they were qualified for the job, and I decided to open the process to all internal candidates. Everyone who applied got a 30-minute screening interview. I asked questions that were intended to help me assess each person’s maturity and readiness for a management job, and I hope each person learned something from the conversation that helped them reflect on their own motivation for management. I wrote about this process in one of my earliest blog posts: Born To Be a Manager.

When I asked why they wanted to be a manager, several people replied that they were looking forward to finally being able to get others to do what they wanted them to do. These applicants seemed to want the job in order to become more powerful, and then use that power to advance their personal agenda. Some of them were visionary, others were petty, but they all failed to recognize the limits to the positional power that accompanies the job description of any manager. The title may provide a soapbox and a microphone, but managers must work within a constrained ecosystem made up of other people with their own agendas. Even the CEO has to deal with investors, customers, and suppliers.

A manager’s ability to “get others to do what they want them to do” has less to do with positional power and more to do with the power of personality, ideas, communication, and achievement. It’s not about how many people report to you; it’s about how many people listen to you. When you look at it that way, the power has little to do with being a manager at all. Leaders have power that’s limited only by their range of influence.

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