Leaders are more powerful than they think

Allison Matlack · 2017-06-20

Leaders are more powerful than they think

I’ve noticed something interesting about the people whose names appear at the top of reporting structures in open organizations:

They tend to underestimate their influence.

Exhibit A: I was sitting across from the director of my department, asking for his thoughts on a new quarterly recognition program I was hoping we’d implement as a way of enhancing associate engagement. “And the prize could be lunch with you!” I exclaimed.

My director met me with silence and a skeptical look before stating bluntly, “That is not a prize.”

Exhibit B: Our CEO, Jim Whitehurst, received a similar question during a company-wide Ask Me Anything event. “Is it possible to have a contest to win a day with Jim?” someone asked.

Jim’s response: “I need some clarification. Is having to spend a day with me for the winner or the loser?”

This isn’t some kind of misdirected humility. Rather, self-deprecating humor is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. The key for leaders in open organizations is to recognize that even while they are only one part of a larger community, they are still an important part. They play several essential roles—navigator, motivator, and champion among them. And an open leader’s influence can still change a team’s dynamic, either for better or for worse. So, while downplaying it might be strategically or interpersonally valuable in certain circumstances, forgetting about it really isn’t.

Selling ourselves short

At Opensource.com, we’ve written a lot about meritocracies—about how the best ideas win, no matter where they come from, and how everyone on a team plays an essential role in the group’s mutual success (or failure). In a well-functioning meritocracy, the role of the “boss” transforms from “the person who tells people what to do” to “the person who sets the context and empowers people to do their best work.” Open leaders today know they can no longer rule from above; in order to be effective, leaders have to be on the ground, working with us, earning our trust.

When you begin to understand and experience this mode of working, some traditional boundaries disappear. For example, the fear of expressing an opinion to your boss vanishes: Either she’ll like your idea, or she’ll point out the flaws, but there’s no consequence for taking the risk of making a suggestion. A partnership begins to form and discussions become more conversational in tone.

And then something even more interesting happens.

As an associate, you begin to see that the manager is in her position because she’s good at her job and has some visionary ideas. You learn a lot just from bouncing ideas off her and listening to her gut reactions. Once you’ve built a foundation of mutual trust and settled into working together, your boss’ words carry a lot more weight because you respect her. Perceived influence increases.

But the dynamic is different for the person in the traditional position of power—the executive, the director, the senior manager. She might have more experience, but as an open leader she knows everyone plays an essential role on the team and that she can’t do her job alone. She starts to wonder why her words should carry more weight than anyone else’s. Perceived influence decreases.

What happens when these conflicting dynamics meet somewhere in the middle?

Open leaders need to recognize that part of the role they play on their teams is using the influence we bestow on them to inspire us. A special kind of magic happens when everyone on a team—including the leader—has trust, shares a common purpose, and feels empowered to do their best work.

So let me offer Exhibit C: Jim agreed to speak at one of our departmental all-hands meetings. Every person on our team felt special when we learned our president and CEO would take time out of his schedule to speak with our small department of 150 people (little more than 1% of the company). We felt seen, like the contributions we made to our little pocket of the company were important enough to be recognized at the top, and we came away energized and reengaged in our work. (I’m not sure what Jim came away with, but we did give him a t-shirt!)

Like Jim, open leaders are influential not just because they’re at the top of the reporting structure, but because we believe in the mission, values, and purpose they embody. If they recognize the role everyone plays in the success of the organization—especially their own—they can wield their influence to motivate their teams and set the proper context for success.