The job of a manager often strikes those of us who have done it as quite a conundrum: apparently straight forward, yet frequently complex; occasionally clear but often maddeningly ambiguous; and especially about having been granted power, yet often leaving one feeling rather powerless.
Management is a constant balancing act. Managing successfully requires knowing what one can do and accomplish on her or his own, versus what will require the help and assistance of others. Managing successfully requires the judgment necessary to determine when you probably know enough to act, versus understanding when gaining a little more knowledge is probably a good idea before you act. And above all, managing successfully demands one understand the limits of one’s power as a designated authority in the work lives of others.
The power and authority that comes with a management assignment can be a very seductive force. Certain individuals are drawn to management jobs because of the power they perceive inherent in the position, and because of what they believe possession of that power says about them as individuals and authorizes them to do in effecting the lives of others.
Yet if wielding that power becomes the single most important imperative of a manager, it is almost certain to undermine their ability to successfully accomplish those objectives where positional power is all but an irrelevant management tool. This is especially true of those aspects of management where one’s ability to motivate human behavior requires the softer, more diplomatic and persuasive set of management skills.
As a manager, I always found it valuable to remember that managerial power relationships within an organization flow in both a vertical and horizontal plane. Each plane offers advantages and contains limitations.
The vertical power plane is a hierarchy. You have power to make certain things happen — to order them to happen, if you like — among those assigned to your authority. While it is never wise to use that power capriciously, you have it when you need it. However, your positional power is ultimately constrained by the authority of those above you in your management chain. Thus, the best managers at all levels wield their vertical power carefully and with considerable fore-thought.
The horizontal power plane is best thought of as a club of equals. Most managers quickly find that all to frequently their ability to accomplish goals necessitates the cooperation of colleagues over whom they have no direct authority and whose positional and vertical power is the same or even greater than their own. In these situations, bargaining, persuading, and achieving compromise are far more useful management tools than attempting to boss folks into action. And the best managers are never fooled by those who consider bargaining and compromise as weakness; they possess practical experience illustrating that such skills really work.
The recent release in America of Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” has rekindled interest in the leadership and management style of perhaps America’s most famous President; a President who managed to help steer a nation through a bloody civil war and preserve its union. Among Lincoln’s most critical skills were: his unwillingness to make his avowed enemies, his personal enemies; his firm commitment to patiently seek common ground, even with those who vehemently disagreed with him and thought their own abilities superior to his own; his ability to maintain his sense of humor and perspective in the face of staunch opposition and problems with no easy or fast solution; and his ability to maintain the long view that eventually getting those things that really mattered right, outweighed any short-term personal accomplishments.
None of Lincoln’s greatest strengths would qualify as the exercise of raw power. Rather they reflect his undoubted understanding of the limits of his positional power and his appreciation of those skills better suited to the accomplishment of his goals. Similarly, all the best managers in my experience possess a profound appreciation of the limits of their power and consequently cultivate the additional skills and common sense insights into human behavior that are best suited to their management objectives.