An important aspect of leadership development is to recognize the extent of one’s own power and influence, as well as its enormous potential to affect others and the world around us. This is important not only so our power can be properly utilized to effectively serve people and influence the rate of progress, but also to ensure that our exercise of it does not inadvertently create unintended consequences opposite to our stated intentions. No one who wishes to become an effective leader can do so without recognizing that, to quote a well-known mentor, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
To illustrate the relationship between power, responsibility, and the potential harm that can arise from not practicing them in tandem, we can consider two stages in the process of a child maturing. The first parallel would be to the process of babies discovering their hands and feet. In the first phase, they are oblivious that these extremities exist and are under their control, and at this stage their limbs are basically useless for good or ill. With respect to their limbs, they are powerless, and thus useless; they can’t really hurt others with them, but they are also unable to help themselves or others with them either. Then they begin to notice their limbs and start experimenting with them and for a while, they are not necessarily in complete control. Eventually, however, they begin to develop their fine motor functions and they are able to more or less move their limbs in accordance with their intentions, and it is at this point that they have assumed some level of power. Unfortunately, this power to control their hands and feet develops before their ability to understand the concept of responsibility, and as a result, many of the things that incipiently autonomous infants do with their bodies are not very nice, e.g. hitting, grabbing, pinching, biting.
Likewise, as many parents will tell you, much of the strife and stress associated with teenagers is the result of them failing to either recognize or take responsibility for the power they have, either through their behavior or their language. This is because teenagers are attempting to bridge the gap between the part of their life when they were treated as children with little power and responsibility, and the next phase of their life in which they are expected to be responsible for their actions and words from this point forward. And when you haven’t really been acknowledged as being powerful in the past, it is very difficult to recognize the responsibility that comes with assuming power once you do have it. Consequently, teenagers may say and do things that might have been completely ignored when they were younger, but as a result of now being listened to and taken seriously, may be regarded as downright offensive or even harmful.
In any case, whether you are a teenager growing into adulthood or you are leader who has taken on additional responsibilities or simply someone whose influence is growing without a formal title, it is extremely important to recognize that the same words and actions that used to be fairly inconsequential in your previous stage of life may carry far more weight now and possibly do unintended damage if you are not intentional about the way you use them. Often it is the case that we are given power first, and then we have to work to practice accepting the responsibility that comes with it. For instance, we functionally “become” adults when we begin being treated like adults; there is no test that we have to take that determines whether we are adults or not. Whether we have power already or we have it thrust upon us is often not within our control, but ultimately it is up us alone to decide to accept and practice responsibility with whatever power we do have. So, why then do so many of us miss this point?
We have all seen the effects of the words spoken by people in positions of power. The Federal Reserve Chairperson can hint to a possible thought process in a 30 second soundbite and the market will move by 500 points. The CEO of a company can send out a tweet, and shares of their stock will rise or drop accordingly. Note that this happens whether the person putting out these announcements recognizes the power of their words or not; just the perception of their stature by others lends their words power, and thus makes them directly or indirectly responsible for what people do in response to those words.
The problem is that often we don’t see ourselves as powerful, and as a result, we act somewhat irresponsibly. We don’t realize that our actions, words, and even our gestures can have a profound impact on the people around us. But, keep in mind that, just as with the law, ignorance is not a valid defense to being irresponsible. You don’t get to use the excuse that you didn’t know your actions and words had such a huge impact, because recognizing the impact of your words and actions is part of your responsibility. And even if you truly don’t know, part of your responsibility is to actively go and find out how your behavior affects others.
I remember one such incident when I was having a conversation on the plant floor with one of the leaders on my team. We were having a very productive exchange, but since we were both fairly animated when we were talking, from afar it apparently looked like we were having a big argument! It just so happened that he had an emergent family situation and didn’t show up for work the day after this “argument.” As you can imagine, rumors started flying that he and I had a pretty bad falling out and that I had fired him or he had quit on the spot! All of this was completely rooted in people’s perception of our body language and our power as two members of the leadership team, and nothing more. Once I got over the initial shock of having so much scrutiny placed on even my gestures and cleared the air, he and I decided that we would have to be a lot more cognizant of the signals we would sent out, even unintentionally. Specifically, we decided that even if we were having an animated conversation, we would make it a point to not have an angry look on our faces and possibly smile occasionally. That may sound like somewhat of a pain, but that’s just part of the responsibility that comes with being seen as a powerful and influential figure.
It was this incident and many other hints that I received over that period of time that finally made me realize that I was no longer “just Amir,” as I had always been to myself. In the eyes of others at the plant, I was now “The Plant Manager.” Everything I said and did, even what I wore to work, had significance. The slightest move on my part now had far reaching impact on how people felt and, more importantly, on how they perceived their future, and whether I liked it or not, that was now my responsibility.
It is incumbent upon every leader to acknowledge their coming of age and recognize that their power and authority is akin to an “Iron Man” suit. It gives them more latitude and ability to make a difference, but it also amplifies the impact of their smallest moves. The more power you have, the more credit you get for using it for good, and the more blame you receive for abusing it. Leaders must learn to use their power wisely and move with grace. Above all, they must learn that, as a leader they are always leading others and always being looked to for inspiration and guidance, even when they are not doing anything at all; for a leader, for better or worse, perception is reality. While it is always commendable to have good intentions, as a leader or a powerful figure, your intentions alone will never be enough to make up for your words and actions, or lack thereof, and their consequences.
Many people who aspire to become leaders seem to want all the power, but none of the responsibility that comes with it, failing to recognize that this is a paradox. It is no more possible than a coin having only one side, or someone to be born but never die. This is because it isn’t just that great power comes with great responsibility, but rather, that power is itself responsibility, and vice versa. There is fundamentally no difference between power and responsibility; they are the same thing, whether we recognize it or not. This is because power is the ability to influence the world, responsibility is the quality of having causally influenced an event to occur. Those in power can thus never escape the obligation of their responsibility, because only they are responsible for whatever arises as a result of their choices, even and especially, the choice to refuse to accept responsibility for their choices. As a leader, you must always remember that is not only what you do that defines you, but who you are that truly matters.
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