11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times: Session 3

This is the third article in a series that invites the reader to eavesdrop on coaching sessions between JFM, who has been fired from her role as President of a medium-sized company, and her leadership coach, Jan Birchfield, Ph.D., of Princeton Leadership Development. In this conversation, we explored the relationship between leadership and power.

JFM: I keep trying to understand what happened to me, how I contributed to having been fired. My CEO had a strong personality, and at the same time he was insecure, had to be treated with "kid gloves." Looking back, there were many situations where I capitulated -- I didn't speak up and offer my point of view, I didn't fight hard enough for what I thought was true. I need to address this, so that I don't repeat this mistake in my next position.

Jan: You are talking about your relationship to power. It is critical that leaders have a clear understanding of this relationship. It is rare to witness someone who holds power in a balanced way; most leaders either over- or under-power. Many bounce back and forth, underpowering in some situations, overpowering in others. Leaders who have a balanced relationship to power evoke trust. It sounds like your tendency is to underplay your power.

JFM: Absolutely. I tend to hold back, particularly with those above me.

Jan: What strikes me is how much power you actually hold. You have a natural authority about you. You stand out, even when you aren't trying to, because of your innate authority. At the same time, you are highly attuned to the feelings of others with a dislike of making others uncomfortable. I suspect that you do not want this strong presence to overwhelm people or evoke envy. So, in part, you hold back in order to protect people from discomfort they may have in relationship to you. From what you have described with your CEO, you could sense that he was easily threatened, so you took care of him emotionally by throttling back, at the expense of standing firmly in your own shoes, in your own power.

JFM: Yes. We had an unspoken agreement that I would tread lightly.

Jan: I've seen this many times, particularly with female leaders, although this isn't exclusive to women; there are men who do the same. But women seem particularly prone to this. You have incredible capacity, but there is a way in which you are afraid of it. In the end, this does not serve your organization. You deprive the decision making process of the refinement in thinking that comes from dissent. You end up in service of your boss's ego, as opposed to being in service of the mission of your organization.

At the opposite end of the continuum are those who are seduced by power, overidentifying with it and using it for personal gain. When a leader exploits power there is a loss of deep listening to context. The field of connection or the larger matrix that the leader operates within falls out of view, and again, the mission of the organization is not served.

JFM: So I need to accept the fact that the power that I hold may make people uncomfortable, and to step into it, anyway.

Jan: Yes, recognizing that this does not mean that your only other choice is to move to the opposite pole, which is to overidentify with power. When you observe power you begin to recognize that holding authority is a gift. In this sense, it isn't "who we are." In Ancient Greece and Rome a person would be described as "having a genius," not "being a genius." Similarly, when we "have power," we are actually tapping into a field that is larger than us; power comes through us. If you understand it in this way, you will hold it lightly, and you won't be so afraid of it. One of the dynamics at work when leaders exploit power is an overidentification with it; the leader shifts from "I have power" to "I am powerful."

To be in a balanced relationship to power requires tremendous humility. This is true with our children, at work, with friends, with strangers, with those that we lead. Humility arises when we see through the illusion of personal identification with power; this increases the chance that we will use it in service of something larger than ourselves. Equally important, if you see power as a gift, than to not use it is to waste it.