Leadership: Power Problems and Finding Flow

power, relationships, leadership

By Angela Noel Lawson

January 14, 2019

Leading people is hard. Anyone that says differently may never done it, or might be terrible at it. Why is leading hard? Because people aren’t spreadsheets. They don’t respond particularly well to commands, and you can’t just save your work and pick up where you left off. People are messy and complicated, weird and wonderful. Add to that the power dynamic of leaders and employees and the soup of difficulty thickens. But, finding out what brings out the best and the worst in ourselves and in the people we lead changes everything.

Pitfalls of the Power Dynamic

First, abuses of power take many forms and vary significantly in severity. I remember a particularly poignant example from my personal life.

Misplaced Accountability

One day, when my son was four, I was late for work. He had dawdled a little, as kids do. But the real fault for the lateness was my poor time management.  Regardless, I wanted someone to blame–someone that wasn’t me. So Jackson suffered my bad mood and my admonishments about not dawdling because he had made mommy late. Only when I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw his tears well up did I realize what I had done. I’d taken out my faults and frustrations on someone with less power than myself.

A leader with positional power over employees will be tempted to do the same. I don’t remember ever doing this with the intention to wound, but I am certain I have done it. An unintentional wound is still a wound.

Objectification

Occasionally, I forgot to see an employee as a person. In stressful moments or when I felt threatened by forces outside of my control, a team member was a means to an end, a butt in a seat, a box I needed to check. And that was wrong, though not particularly surprising.

Research published in a 2013 Science Brief by the American Psychological Association confirms how leaders who feel insecure about their position act in ways contradictory to the well-being of the team.

We all know we’re cogs in the company wheel. As such, no matter what position we hold, unless we own the company, we serve the larger mission rather than our own interests. It makes sense, therefore, that a leader might see an employee as a tool towards getting a job done. As a tool though, a person loses agency. They no longer have the fullness of personhood, they are now objects for all intents and purposes. Once this happens, it’s easy to forget all kinds of things.

Lack of Empathy

For example, a boss who has successfully objectified his or her workforce doesn’t understand or care about the experience of his or her employees. A leader in this situation has enough positional power to discount the feelings of everyone but him or herself and get away with it. A lack of empathy for others can result in tyrannical behavior.

My own tyranny was triggered when I felt insecure, afraid, or just plain overwhelmed. One of my team members once offered me this feedback, “You know, you can say ‘hello’ before you start telling us what to do.” She was absolutely right. A leader, unless it’s a life or death situation, must invest in relationships first, foremost, and again and again.

Recognizing the triggers of tyranny aren’t easy. Cultivating empathy such that it, and gratitude for the contributions of others, become normal operating procedure takes both courage and self-awareness. I have more of both these days, though I won’t promise never to fail again. I surely will. But I can promise to see my error, admit it, correct it, and try for a better tomorrow.

A Better Tomorrow

We are human beings, leaders and the led. When we assume a leader isn’t subject to normal human fallibility we put that leader on a pedestal he or she will surely fall off of. I’ve fallen off. I’ve also put others in the position to disappoint me by assuming they are somehow more evolved than I simply because he or she held a position of power.

Excellent leaders earn the respect of those they lead. These same leaders often know or intuit that power flows through them. They are the agent of it, rather than the point of origin. This idea may seem odd. So let me explain–or let a guy with a really challenging name explain it for me. He named this experience “being in flow.”

Finding Flow

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi author of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience  defines flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” “The ego,” he says, “falls away.”

I experience flow when I write sometimes. Readers feel the fluidity and lack of self-consciousness in my words. It’s as if I am not writing them, they are being written through me. Despite sounding like a somewhat mystical experience, it’s really not. Being in flow is simply living and acting in connection with a deeper awareness. This awareness tells a leader to offer words of praise and to express gratitude for contribution. It also enables the delivery of challenging feedback with both open heart and clear intention.

A leader, just like a writer, must first learn to recognize when he or she is in a state of flow. Then he or she must actively cultivate it. Being in flow is the balance point between heart and head. Athletes feel it frequently: skiers in perfect balance shooshing down a mountain, or football kickers who know the minute foot connects to ball they’ve scored the extra point. Bowlers, same thing: Flow feels like the perfect moment when a bowler knows she’s thrown a strike even before the first pin falls. The outcome, in other words, is the natural result of both the spirit and the preparation leading up to it.

Leadership in any Role

I led teams of people in various jobs for over a decade prior to accepting an individual contributor role. I loved leading and loved the people I led. But, I’ve also loved not having direct reports. In fact, it was only by stepping away from leadership that I gained perspective on what I’d done well and what I’d truly sucked at as a boss.

Without direct people-leadership responsibilities, I focus on how it felt to be led. I watch others, gaining perspective on key qualities of leaders I admire and wish to emulate. With no positional power, I cannot fall back on “because I said so.” Instead, as an individual contributor, I exercise relationship, communication, and emotional muscles I might otherwise have neglected.

Remember, leadership is hard. Being a good leader means recognizing the difficulty inherent in individualizing to each and every person on the team. It means finding the unique key to unlocking the potential of every employee, and in ourselves, while balancing the inherent other of power dynamics. A leader that seeks to do these things will find him or herself in flow more often than not. I’ve felt it often over the past five or six years. I know it’s real. Leadership is hard, but few things are as rewarding. By minimizing the problems of power and finding leadership flow, success, for both the people and the companies we work for, follows.

Your Turn: What do you admire in leaders? What do you find most challenging in leadership? What have been your greatest successes or failures?

Featured Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

15 thoughts on “Leadership: Power Problems and Finding Flow”

  1. The hardest job you’ll ever love;) I am SURE you’ll be a remarkable leader once you are ready to step back into being a direct leader. In the meantime, you are leading and influencing the people you work with (even your bosses) by sharing your insights and intentions. Way to rock it!

    1. Thanks, Tracy! I’m in awe of great leaders. I’m lucky to have known so many! As you said at lunch, it’s focusing on the contribution we want to make that matters most. And I agree–nothing is as rewarding as knowing you’ve been a positive part of another human’s journey.

  2. Leadership is hard, the hardest part of a job I think. I’ve been led by bullies and by good leaders. Leading isn’t something that comes naturally to me and so there are plenty of times I could have handled things better, but I am empathetic so it usually always comes from a good place.

    1. You know, I honestly believe the best leaders are often those for whom it doesn’t come naturally. I think sometimes when something seems so natural we don’t learn to develop the skill to do it better. Or like natural athletes who trust in their physical ability and neglect developing their brains. Sometimes the best leaders are those who, like you, are empathetic and willing to keep trying. Good for you for knowing yourself and trusting your good heart.

  3. When I studied Psychology, I remember my teacher telling me that there are two kinds of leaders. A leader that lives by the rules and follows them by the book (and also expects everyone else to) and a leader that is more concerned with team morale. When I led a team, I was most definitely the latter. I loved keeping morale up, I learned what each employee loved & hated and therefore knew how to motivate them & keep them happy and I loved creating an atmosphere that kind of “buzzed”. However, I was generally a failure at rule keeping. I was too easy going for that. Different leaders bring different skills. And there are of course leaders that shouldn’t be leaders in the first place. And I’ve had plenty of those as bosses. I find the worst leaders are the ones that don’t listen and have tunnel vision. As if they have too much focus. Oh and the leaders that think sexual harassment in the office is ok. They’re the absolute worst. I can imagine you’re a good leader, Angela. I’d happily have you as a boss.

    1. Thank you for such a meaty comment! I think your teacher has an interesting view. I honestly don’t know how I’d measure up! I love people and want them to be successful–which can mean they’re happy. And I like following rules IF they make sense and are fair. But, that’s very rarely the case. I think the rules should help leaders apply discretion fairly, but shouldn’t fence them (or their teams) in.
      It’s a really good thing to think about more.
      I wish I could report to you too! I’d love an environment that buzzes with energy.
      And I agree–bad bosses are one thing, but those that allow disrespectful harassing behavior (or do it themselves) are the worst of the bad.
      I always value your perspective. You’re great.

  4. Wonderful advice, Angela, and it’s advice that is useful everywhere – from parents, to teachers, to corporate leaders, and beyond. I remember stepping into my first student teaching job – I was terrified the first time I stood in front of my class. I had thirty pairs of eyes, precious eyes, looking up at me expectantly. Sometimes I saw more than 200 elementary students per day in my physical education classes. I know that my leadership skills grew in the six years that I taught. I felt the flow after I learned how to lead, but nothing was perfect, and it never would be. There is always more to learn, more to experience, and new things to utilize when in a leadership role. It’s because, like you said, all people are different. However, the advice you give can be used in all situations to help that flow, and to build a happy team, family, etc.

    1. Great point! Being a good leader isn’t limited to companies. Community leaders, family leaders, teachers–everything you said. One of the MOST difficult groups to lead are volunteers, I think. Anyone that can motivate people who are volunteering their time gets a high-five from me.
      And teachers! From the time you spent in your classroom to leading your kiddo’s today, I think there’s a special kind of wonderful that teachers who lead their pupils to learn embody. And I’ve no doubt you have that in abundance!

      1. Good article that shows the maturing aspect of leadership. Leadership is not always inborn. Acknowledging a person with a greeting before the dictate is so important. I tend not to do this well when I’m absorbed in getting something off my plate and onto another’s. My work history of supervising is truly pathetic. I realize now how prideful I was at insisting that things be done my way, because, of course, it was the best way. Leading volunteers is often left out of the skill set. Same goes with just being part of a volunteer group. It’s quite a different dynamic. Volunteers can just not show up without ramifications. l do a lot of volunteer work now and sometimes have led a project. Even that didn’t go so well at first. Fortunately, I’ve matured and am letting go of my prideful nature (pride being the root of being judgmental). Being part of or supervising a volunteer group is rewarding and frustrating. And a great opportunity to learn about oneself. When no one follows, there’s a problem.

        1. I agree–leading volunteers must be the hardest group! Good for you that you’ve had some insights on what might be holding you back from leading effectively.
          I can relate. I know sometimes I’ve wanted my way and steamrollered over others to get there. As a wise friend of mine has said, if we can’t get what we want legitimately, we’ll get i illegitimately. Not illegally (probably) but just not in the right way. I think you’re doing what many of us should be–self-reflecting and hoping for a better tomorrow.

  5. I’m so uncomfortable leading a team, I avoid it at all costs. Fortunately, my positions tend to be silos where I work alone along side of the team. When I need help from someone in another department, I come across as apologetic that I’m asking for something. It seems to work in these situations, but if I’m the leader of a team, it doesn’t work at all.

    Writing and Flow: This was a timely discussion. When I sat down at my computer, I thought I was going to start a poem about the beautifully frosted window on my office door. But it seemed like such a chore, I read your blog instead. Your post helped me see why I avoid poetry, there is no state of flow. Each word is wrenched from the void, trimmed, twisted and placed with the care of a stonemason building a rock wall. For me, it’s not enjoyable like writing CNF. Thanks for the insight.

    1. It’s funny, but I would imagine you a very good leader–your introspection and grit make that impression on me.
      I’m glad to hear you happened to turn a light bulb on for you. I commend you for trying poetry. For some, I think poems are natural and easy–but not for me. You wrote about the problem you find with poetry so beautifully. I agree though–creative non-fiction and personal essay are my forms of choice too!

  6. I think that because you’re aware of these things, you’ll continue to grow and be an amaaazing leader if/when you have that role again in the future.

    I think your point at the top “People are messy and complicated, weird and wonderful.” is just soooo true. I find when i have been privileged to lead people, the management techniques are completely different depending on the type of people you are managing.

  7. I agree, being a leader is very hard Angela but when it’s done well, it’s worth the effort. I was lucky to be a leader of a small for many years and learnt so much about others and more about myself. I know what type of leadership skills work for me and what don’t. I found it harder to deal with managers who had no idea of what they were doing and tried to go it alone. Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking post.

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