What Is Power?

Without Good Leadership, No People Will Follow You

Michael DouglasEnterprising executives today want to know: How do you define power and how can it be attained? Here, business experts and consultants provide the answers.

In a quest to define power, one thing is clear: Effective leadership is the best place to start. Without good leadership, no people will follow you. And, without followers, well, you're powerless.

Successful leadership strategies, though, can be fleeting. With all the business world's uncertainty in recent years (think recession, political stressors, factory disasters abroad) it's tougher than ever for executives to figure out just what skills, tactics and personality traits they need to adopt or exhibit to become effective leaders. What stabilized a sales team nine months ago might be a useless management tool today. And what empowered office staff to rise up and take on additional jobs in a recessed economy when companies were operating with skeletal crews may not be enough to motivate workers in a rebounding marketplace.

In fact, those managers who weathered the economic downturn and are still standing are likely natural leaders. But that doesn't mean there aren't others within today's distributorships waiting to become tomorrow's great power players.

Today's corporate leaders are nothing if not flexible, forever responding not just to market shifts but to clients and staff with equal measure, ensuring a leadership balance inside and outside the company.

Sound hard? Before ad specialty executives get the idea that they have to be management superheroes, it's important to remember that today's work environment often provides a panoply of opportunities for managers to assert their leadership skills every day. It's simply a matter of seizing those opportunities – and knowing what works today.

"The traits of powerful business leaders are different in the 21st century than they were just a few years and decades ago," says Leslie Ungar, a communications and leadership coach in Akron, OH, and president of Pragmatic Coaching for Dramatic Results.

Keep Your Cool
For starters, today's leaders, even the industry's biggest power players, are inherently consistent and even-tempered, says Ungar, who is also the author of 100 Tips to Communicate Your Value.

The caricatured boss from the '70s who was temperamental, prone to tantrums and frequently yelling at staff is ineffective – if not intolerable – in today's fast-paced, always changing marketplace. Consistency, Ungar insists, is one of the most important (and stabilizing) traits a leader possesses in today's business environment. Why? It's that consistency, she says, that helps workers feel empowered, relaxed and trusted in the office. It also helps build trust and rapport among clients and vendors.

But consistency isn't always a management style that can be picked up and put on like a new pair of shoes, Ungar adds. For many managers it's a conscious leadership choice. "People want to change tactics like how they shake hands or what they say, but first it's a mindset," Ungar says. "You have to acquire a mindset that being consistent has a value and that it's what you want to aspire to."

In addition, for those leaders who have struggled to gain the respect of their subordinates in the past, suddenly becoming a power player within a company can be difficult. Managers in that position, Ungar says, might have to address teams of workers or even individuals one-on-one to state directly that their leadership vision for the company is changing. Getting buy-in from staff is crucial for leaders making those pronouncements.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. But most consultants contend that leadership – even becoming a preeminent power player in your field after years of ineffective influence – can be learned. A 2013 review of effective leaders, conducted by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, found that 75% of them were able to improve their leadership skills with feedback from peers, staff and bosses.

In general, experts point to several key traits that not only make someone a leader but also a power player. Not the least of which is the "intelligence and competency to do the job," says John Baldoni, chair of the leadership development practice at N2growth, a global leadership consultancy in Ann Arbor, MI, and author of Lead with Purpose: Giving Your Organization A Reason To Believe In Itself, and The "Leaders'' Pocket Guide: 101 Indispensable Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Any Situation.

That seems obvious, but too often companies don't recognize team members who are more likely to become better leaders. Intelligence in leadership, Baldoni adds, is as much about being "street smart" as it is about understanding fundamental business strategies.

Other key traits, he adds, include being resilient, relentlessly optimistic, confident, ruthlessly persistent and, most importantly, he says, humble. "I have met so many good leaders," Baldoni says, "and almost the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘I've got a great team around me.'"

Do You Want It?
True power in business, many experts say, can be attained by those who aspire to it – and it's not for everybody. It's important to recognize if whether becoming a leader, much less a power player, is really your true ambition.

"I had a CEO as a client," Ungar recalls. "His right hand guy was his right hand guy for 24 years. If you're happy being the right hand guy for 24 years, then that's probably not the skill set of a CEO. He was a great right hand guy and was a tactical guy, and the CEO was the strategic guy. In America, we grow up thinking everybody wants to be a leader and not everybody does."

Still, for those who do aspire to be leaders, Ungar and other experts are convinced that the vast majority of them can learn the traits they need to develop to become industry power players. "I think they're all learned," Ungar says.

Yes, there are natural-born leaders. But most of today's business executives who command respect and push their companies forward do so because they've adopted management techniques and philosophies that almost anyone could use. Often, especially in today's world, that means playing a multitude of roles among employees, says Baldoni. Today's leaders are "very much in the servant-leader category," says Baldoni.

By that, he means leaders lead through actions as much as through words. "We have come through a vicious financial downturn which pushed people to the limit," Baldoni says. "Those leaders who survived and are now still leading organizations, are much tougher and much more savvy."

The Power of Presence
Combine those monumental market shifts with the weight of increasing pressure to show profitability and revenue gains, and suddenly leaders who are running companies today need to be able to overcome difficult situations. One thing that separates mid-rung managers from power players, experts say, is the ability to be more agile and decisive in a crisis.

"We used to live in isolated pods, but now a trend in India could affect business in Peoria," Baldoni says. "Leaders on a senior level are on call 24/7. They need to learn to deal with that."

Often that means being extremely accessible in tough times. "The mantra for today's leader should be, ‘Be seen, be heard, be there,' " Baldoni says.

Being seen more by traveling to see staff or accompanying salespeople on sales calls, for instance, helps deliver a power player's message. Sometimes that's done by walking the halls of an office daily and taking the temperature of workers. Other times it's done by becoming a part of the process. "If you need heavy boxes moved, a leader needs to pitch in," Baldoni says.

Becoming a truly powerful leader is often built from an undeniable vision a corporate leader has. What if "Steve Jobs said, ‘I want to develop an iPhone,' and he said this to key team members and they said, ‘nah, that sounds like a horrible idea'? What, should he not do it?," asks Mark Stevens, CEO of global marketing firm MSCO, in Rye Brook, NY, and bestselling author of Your Marketing Sucks.

More to the point, "The best business leaders are not motivated by ‘power.' Instead, they are influenced by a high need to create value for their business," says Charley Polachi, partner at Polachi Access Executive Search, an executive search firm in Framingham, MA. "A Steve Jobs type does not go out and become great simply for his own ego. Instead, he does it because he wants to make a difference. Great leaders ask themselves at the end of the day, ‘what am I doing that is meaningful or impactful?' "

And, while it's important to accept when an idea is bad, Stevens says, it's also a true trait of leaders to stand behind product ideas and management decisions that they believe will better their company, even if they are the only ones who think so. "Anything that's weak, wishy-washy and rudderless detracts from leadership," Stevens says. "Anything that's strong, decisive and strategic enhances leadership. So you have a balance sheet."

Keeping that equation balanced, and even tilted toward decisiveness, is the key to becoming a power player.

That's not to be confused with becoming domineering or authoritarian. Those kinds of leaders are obsolete in today's business world, says Mark Faust, principal at Echelon Management International, a business consultancy based in Cincinnati. "I don't think the power people are the Donald Trumps of the world" anymore, Faust says.

Instead, building power in today's business environment is done through innovative ideas and exceptional insights. Today's "true power brokers aren't typical," Faust says. "They're quiet and humble. The Donald Trump style is dying. The new kids want to be embraced, respected and part of a team."

Collaborative management with a power player leading the charge, but in a collective way, is a more effective approach in today's marketplace, experts insist. In fact, leaders who look to their staff for growth goals and corporate vision can find greater success than even they imagined. Faust recalls one executive he worked with who predicted growth of 24% for the year within a new company division he was leading.

"I said, ‘Why so small? Why don't you ask your team what they think?' And the sales team said 33%," Faust says.

That year, that division of the company grew 34%. "People tend to support that which they create."

E-Mail: betsycummings23@gmail.com

Power Player