The Best Use of Power Is in Service to Others

Most new leaders are excited to have power because they feel they finally have the title and position to do things their way. But having power doesn’t guarantee cooperation from your people. Leaders who think they are a big deal because of their position are at risk of losing their best people and not getting the performance they need from those who remain. Yet theories still abound that the best kind of leader is one who is forceful, powerful, and commanding. How can that be reconciled with the tenets of servant leadership?

When I was elected president of the seventh grade, I came home from school excited to tell my parents about this achievement. My father, who retired as a rear admiral in the US Navy, had a quick reminder for me. “Congratulations, Ken. But now that you’re president, don’t use your position. Great leaders are great not because they have power but because their people trust and respect them.”

My dad knew an important principle of being a successful servant leader: people will give you their best when they trust you and know you have their backs. I’ve never forgotten his advice—and it has inspired my leadership style for seven decades.

Want to know how to make this commonsense leadership principle common practice in your work? Don’t focus on the power that comes with the title of leader—focus on the people you have an opportunity to serve.  Here are a few suggestions: 

  • Continually emphasize we over me.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Encourage and support people’s efforts rather than directing them.

When you show your people you are there to serve, not to be served, they know they are part of a team and are motivated to give you their best efforts.

All kinds of people struggle with the notion of power. The abuse of power, the use of status and position to coerce others, and the egoism associated with people who have social and political power have turned people off to the acceptance of power, let alone the use of it. But there is nothing wrong with being in a position of power if you use it properly.

Randy Conley, my coauthor on Simple Truths of Leadership, wrote this on the use of power: Being a servant leader rather than a self-serving leader means giving away my power to help other people achieve their personal goals [and] the objectives of the organization, and to allow them to reach their full expression and potential as individuals. One of the paradoxes of leadership is that placing others before ourselves, and using our power to serve rather than dominate, actually brings us more power, respect, commitment, and loyalty.

I’ll close with the words of 17th century Spanish writer and philosopher Baltasar Gracian, author of The Art of Worldly Wisdom.

“The sole advantage of power is the ability to do more good.”

The Best Use of Power Is in Service to Othersis Simple Truth #14 in my new book with Randy Conley, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Find it at your favorite bookstore or online retailer—and go here to download a sneak preview!

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