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The CEO and Power: Are the Two a Dynamic Duo or an Odd Couple?

Power is a word that is often spoken synonymously with the office of CEO—for better or for worse. By dictionary definition, power is “the ability to act or produce an effect.” Simple enough. Yet, when it comes to how power plays out in leadership positions, understanding the dynamics can mean the difference between leading effectively and falling flat.

Here are four forces that stand out.

1. Overestimating the power of the office. As we all know, things don’t just happen when you say so. It is humbling to realize that we aren’t as powerful as we think, that the office of CEO itself does not create a rod of power. To get things done, a leader needs levers—an aligned team that owns and collectively drives the agenda. Also critical are key champions throughout the organization who will support the plan. Creating these levers out of the gate can help set up a leader for success.

“The office of the CEO itself does not create a rod of power. To get things done, a leader needs an aligned team that owns and collectively drives the agenda.”

2. Underestimating the power of the office. While leaders can overestimate their power to drive change, they can also underestimate their power when it comes to communication. When a CEO says something, people tend to hear it at higher decibel levels than what may have been intended—making it even more crucial to choose words and actions carefully.

On the flip side, this can make the case for the CEO who finds his power with a more reflective approach rather than risking saying too much too soon. I see Apple’s Tim Cook displaying this
type of leadership. Commenting on Cook’s reflective leadership style in The New York Times article, “Tim Cook: Making Apple his Own,” Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design says that Cook
projects “quiet consideration.” Cook digests things carefully, with time, which “testifies to the fact [that] he knows it’s important,” says Ive.

3. Understanding how power influences communication. Just as CEOs may underestimate the “volume” of their words or actions, it’s also true that what is said to a leader can be skewed by the position itself. Examples include telling the CEO what he or she wants to hear or assuming that the CEO must know all since he or she has ascended to the top post. Communication to the CEO may also be motivated by fear or conversely, driven by the person’s own agenda. Leaders must sort through what people tell them and why, and then develop trusted resources on their team who have a pulse on the organization and can provide perspective.

This dynamic can also create another paradox for CEOs: when you most need honest communication and feedback, you are least likely to receive it. And yet, the office requires, in fact, depends upon, authentic dialogue in order to be effective. It can indeed be lonely at the top. This is why it’s so critical to create and nurture a framework in which open conversation is possible. Without this capability, a CEO lacks what he or she desperately needs to lead effectively.

4. Distinguishing between power over and power through. How a CEO uses his or her power has a significant impact on how quickly and effectively he or she produces results. Depending on how it’s used, power can either shut down or accelerate change. On one hand, power over people limits, stifles and stumps initiative. On the other, power through people liberates, invigorates and inspires creativity. The latter is more conducive to enacting change.

Like so many things, the dynamics of power and the CEO are at the same time complex and simple. The savvy CEO knows that understanding and leveraging these nuances can go a long way toward being effective at the top.


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