Few concepts are more indispensable to understanding leader behavior in work communities than applied power use. Whether we treat power use as the aim of leaders or as instrumental to other, higher goals, it is a necessary part of leadership. It is central to any interaction with people. Power use is a cornerstone of both inner leadership theory and its practice. It is the heart of leadership behavior. Learning to comfortably use power in the work communities in which they have membership is central to every other inner leader task.
All organized interaction is political—a competition between members for status, material acquisition, or ideological advantage. The vernacular term for this is office politics or organizational power politics (Fairholm, 1993). All members in any work community engage in power politics as part of their routine relationships (Serven, 2002). It is indispensable to personal and group effectiveness and survival. Member and group success, regardless of the community, is dependent on the appropriateness of the particular power techniques used in the interrelationship. Inner leaders continually engage in power use. Their task is an influential one that make use of a range of applied power-use techniques.
The idea of using one’s personal power in social contexts has emotional overtones and carries both positive and negative ethical connotations. Some see power as “manipulation,” “coercion,” “control,” or “force.” For these people, power use is “Machiavellian.” Certainly, power can be manipulative. It is in play in behaviors such as “brown nosing,” “yesing” the boss, and similar ingratiating action. In fact, “Machiavellian” has come to epitomize the worst in manipulative, exploitative, self-serving power use. But that is not all that power is.
A more balanced perspective sees power as ethically neutral. The ethics of power lies not in power use per se but in the motives and values of the user. As with any other tool, we can use power for “good,” that is, for socially developmental purposes, or for “bad,” for personal aggrandizement. User goals and objective results achieved, not power application itself, are the ethical criteria (McClelland, 1976). A leader can use power without destructive result to either self or others. Results attained depend on the motives and skill of the particular leader. The inner leader’s power effects also are conditioned by the skill in power use of all others involved in a particular power exchange.
Power is, of course, central to leadership, planning, directing, controlling, and performance evaluation. Leaders use power to secure their goals; control scarce resources, negotiate agreements among individuals, or take autonomous action to try to achieve their personal outcomes. It is to influence these processes that most inner leaders use their power, and it is in this context that power use has its most telling impact on the inner leader’s personal and work-community success. Conventional top leadership techniques like participative management, decision making, or system change and conflict management are no longer enough to fully explain action in the various subunits of the corporation. An applied power perspective provides better analytical tools and new skills and competencies, as well as the motivation to alter ineffective patterns of individual and collective behavior. Judicious use of power increases the inner leader’s ability singly and as a part of a unified work community to respond to a constantly changing environment.
Power is a relative concept. An inner leader may be relatively powerful in one circumstance and not so powerful in another. The energy expended in any given power-use situation is a function of its importance, the presence or absence of needed resources, and the leader’s skill in using appropriate power tactics or techniques. Described as we have done so, power is a ubiquitous part of all work-community life. It is at the center of the inner leader’s attention and not only assists him or her in ensuring work-community success but ensures his or her own professional achievement as well.