Understanding Power and Authority

Leaders have power and control, and they need to know how and when it’s appropriate to use them.

You can’t be a bully and be a good leader.

Followers know that any leader, a supervision, manager, or project lead, has power and control that can be exerted in completing tasks or setting goals. Leaders may not understand the impact their power has on others. Here’s an interesting example.

Pete was an excellent manager, a top employee and highly skilled technically. He was a Senior Director at a major manufacturing plant, in charge of millions of dollars of deliverables in a 24/7 environment. As his responsibilities grew, and more new people joined his team, Pete’s behavior began to shift.

The Times They Are A Changin’

For one, he did not like working with younger workers, and was vocal about it. Also, the stress of the 24/7 manufacturing cycle was getting to him, as he checked his phone constantly, even waking up in the middle of the night to check on the latest updates. By the time he got to work in the morning, he was irate and fuming at what he had learned overnight. Every day, he stormed into the plant with a scowl on his face. He didn’t even say hello or good morning to people, instead, he shouted orders and  disrupted team meetings. In fact, on one occasion, Pete was so frustrated and fed up with those team members he considered not up to speed, or lazy or unprepared, he called them out publicly, embarrassing and shaming them, especially those young millennials.

Accepting Change

While in different times, Pete’s behavior would have been overlooked, in the second decade of the 2000s, it was not. More than one official complaint landed on HR’s desk about Pete’s behavior, his belittling comments, his flying off the handle, his unpleasant demeanor, his barking and snapping at employees. Finally, when it came time for his annual performance review, his boss and the HR department were fed up. Pete received one of the worst reviews of his career, with a warning that if he didn’t fix his behavior, he would be out of a job. And, Pete was a 20-year employee, had a patent for a special technology product, and had been sent to training for upper management. Yet, his career hit the rocks because of his behavior.

Perception and Empathy

When Pete had a chance to reflect on his circumstances, the topic of using power came up. It was pointed out to Pete that he was perceived as “throwing his weight around” or leaning on people with the power he had as a Senior Director. Pete did not see this point and became somewhat defensive about the drift of the conversation. So, Pete let out all his frustrations and stuck to his story, claiming to be in the right, blaming his behavior on the  millennials. But when he was presented with that same scenario in reverse,  with himself as the one being belittled, shouted at, bullied, etc., he was shocked to realize that he was wielding his power all wrong. He missed the mark about how people perceived him in his leadership position. His un-empathic behavior may not have been intended as bullying, but bullying was exactly the behavior he was guilty of.

Intimidation Doesn’t Work

What this shows is the magnitude of the power of a leader, and how leaders can unconsciously use their power to intimidate, hurt and bully employees. Once Pete’s eyes were opened, he had his big AH-HA moment. He realized that he could use the power he was unaware of as a leader in a more supportive manner. He even had to learn and rehearse the exact language to use when dealing with an issue in a team meeting. With this new perspective and some newfound empathy, Pete learned to control his stress. He stopped checking his phone in the middle of the night. In fact, he shut off his phone and computer at 7:00PM and left them off until 7:00AM. He began exercising more. He even started meditating. With this stress relief and new approach to his behavior with perspective and empathy, Pete learned how to lead, not just how to be the boss.

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Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.