Transcending power and dominance: a view on leadership as interaction

_MG_3570_2In typically organized firms, position comes with power. Nominated leaders draw plans, make decisions and are accountable for the employees they oversee. This setting defines leadership as a characteristic of the few, making power scarce. Clear role-based leadership works well for example in manufacturing where the quality of the end product depends on well-defined processes and minimizing human error. However, in information intensive, socially constructed work, leadership should be seen as something more than power over others. Leadership is a characteristic of interaction and learning that permeates all layers of the ecosystem.

Most definitions of leadership contain reference to power and dominance. Especially in trying times, leaders are looked to for clear-cut plans and the ability to create certainty. Great leadership is said to lean on a set of skills like clear communication, strategic thinking and visionary capability. The list goes on, recently also highlighting the importance of emotional intelligence. But what actually differentiates a these leadership traits from characteristics desirable for any employee? Does leadership as we now define it ultimately boil down to the capability to dominate or the willingness of followers to follow?

According to an article, successful leaders have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol than others. This hormonal composition is connected to more risk tolerance and competitiveness, and less fear and anxiety. Furthermore, and quite amusingly, the original study found that the levels of testosterone and cortisol could be teetered to the optimal level by assuming a “power pose” and holding it for two minutes (for example, standing in a wide stride, chest puffed out). In another study it was found that lowering the pitch of their voice made participants feel more powerful and promoted their abstract thinking. Together, these results emphasize the importance of personally experienced power and dominance in the traditional concept of leadership.

In addition to personal experience of power, also the follower experience of leadership has to be taken into account. Ultimately, the only one who can make a leader is the follower. In line with this thinking, research has found a connection between the experience of leadership and the follower’s leadership prototypes. Additionally, the followers’ style of self-leadership influences the prototypes that they choose in evaluating leadership in others. This variability of relationships between individual differences and concepts of leadership has led to the demand for more complex models of leadership and followership.

It seems that on one side, leadership is all about the experience of power and dominance but on the other, it is always contextual and highly personal.  Also, the approaches to defining, measuring and studying leadership are multiple. When thinking about how leadership should be redefined, it might be good to take a step back and look at the need for leadership. Why does leadership exist within an organization? What is is used for?

Today, value creation demands above all the development of thought and the ability to help others in this endeavor. If the individual only relies on an external power for information, organization and strategy, there is no true ownership of the thought process or interaction. Maybe it is time to let go of the power concept and see leadership as something entirely contextual.  If you are experiencing undue stress or personal uncertainty, maybe it is a good idea to seek support from a typical “good leader”, with low cortisol and high testosterone, who can make you feel secure and cared for. However, it would be a mistake to say that this type of interaction would suffice or be appropriate in every work situation. Furthermore, leadership that is mainly a projection of power and confidence and that originates from a separate organizational layer can provide a false sense of security in an organization. It contains the notion that someone smarter more insightful has devised a plan that will surely take everything into account. When inevitable changes happen and the plan needs to be altered, it feels like a breach of trust. This kind of setting promotes interpersonal models that stem more from parent-child interactions than the interaction between equal adults. If the goal is to develop thought and encourage learning, equality of power will provide more possibilities for leadership and through that more possibilities for interaction that leads to learning.

Leadership could be redefined as simply a form of interaction where one looks to another in order to become better and learn. A leader in today’s organization could simply be defined as someone with whom you want to work in order to develop. In this sense, the characteristics pertaining to the concept of leader vary with every learning situation. Leadership can take turns or coexist within a network, and it can be something that is never explicitly expressed, something the leader is not even aware of.

If leadership is an attribute of the few, so is the power to influence others within the organization. This in turn minimizes the possibilities for interaction that leads to learning and development. Finding good leaders is one key process of successful value creation. The new concept of leadership defines this as a highly personal and contextual process that relies above all on good self-knowledge: who could complement my understanding in this situation, who could challenge my views, who could support my thinking? Who could help me become better?

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