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Global CEO practice leader Kati Najipoor-Schütte explains the role of power in top management today, and what the inner workings of a leadership personality have to do with this, in an article for the Harvard Business Manager Special Edition “Macht” (Power).

When I embarked on my career more than 30 years ago, the terms “top manager” and “power” were two sides of the same coin. And while there was, and indeed still is, nothing essentially negative about the concept of power in itself, today I find myself witnessing a change in the way top managers wield that power.

In the past, a style of leadership legitimized by hierarchies and founded on top-down directives was par for the course. Today’s leadership is much more inclusive and socially responsive, and invests in actually representing and delivering upon the company purpose. Whereas I myself was once part of a culture whose leaders stood apart through various “insignias of power,” this is less so the case today. Prominent CEOs now cycle to work, take the metro and wear sneakers.

They do so for a reason. While the managers who wield power still shape the fate of a company, they know that in today’s environment of greater complexity and uncertainty, clear directives alone are no longer enough to maintain a competitive edge. They need to actively remove the obstacles that set them apart and strive instead to both strengthen connections to their teams and foster more creative space from which new ideas will flourish. To meet these ends, today’s leaders need to better recognize and transcend their own self-sabotaging behaviors.

When I meet people who are responsible for tens of thousands of employees, one question constantly arises: How do I motivate my people in times when constant change is the normal state of affairs? Employees need to be fired up; they need to be given the chance to help shape the company’s success. This is only going to happen if there is a leading figure who combines motivational skills with courage, while at the same time remaining humble and truly authentic. The classic model of issuing top-down directives is hardly conducive to creating an agile organization. Momentum must be generated nearer to the company’s center of gravity. It’s not enough to simply dispense with status symbols; managers need to actively change their behavior. Thought leaders like Frédéric Laloux go so far as to advocate that entire organizations completely reinvent themselves. The key for Laloux lies in abandoning the traditional model of the omnipotent boss and empowering employees to be more involved in both diagnosing and implementing the necessary change.

"Significantly, the problem is that the pace of business operations is spiraling: The business environment is volatile, and pressure from shareholders and the public is rising. Top executives rarely have the time and space for self-reflection. Yet this is precisely what is needed to meticulously devise necessary improvements and innovations, or even reinvent the entire business model."

Kati Najipoor-Schütte

How, then, can leading figures deal responsibly with the power vested in them? Today, more than ever, true power comes from within – specifically from within the personality of the leader. A board member from a DAX 30 company told me recently how important it was for him to retain his inner independence and remain true to himself. His focus, he said, was on his task and not his position. Outstanding managers seize upon a catalyst, a current trend or opinion and create formative spaces within which people who advocate for themselves can succeed.

As Harvard thought leader Erica Ariel Fox puts it, “Our world is currently reinventing itself – and if we want to be successful, we must reinvent ourselves as well.” Among the many forces vying for attention in today’s increasingly complicated world, we all too often lose sight of who we really are. To counteract this, we can try to identify what truly motivates us and the values that shape our actions. Reinventing ourselves is never going to be easy, but it is well worthwhile. By bringing out the humanity in ourselves, we can create dependable points of reference for others to do the same and generate greater followership overall.

Significantly, the problem is that the pace of business operations is spiraling: The business environment is volatile, and pressure from shareholders and the public is rising. In addition there is the incredible challenge of responding adequately to diverse stakeholder interests. Top executives rarely have the time and space for self-reflection. Yet this is precisely what is needed to meticulously devise necessary improvements and innovations, or even reinvent the entire business model.

Corporate leaders who really understand the untapped, potent nature of their positions choose to become enablers and motivators. They don’t strive to be a lone role model; they believe in collaboration. They see themselves as partners to their managers, and they know that, today, power resides beyond the management team, within the heart of the organization itself and among its best employees. Consequently, they invest more than ever in their own development to better equip themselves to fully inhabit this new model of leadership. Not only do they endeavor to bridge the gap between those in power and their followers, they also galvanize a greater majority of support by becoming united in the best interests of the company. By willingly abandoning the old style of top-down power and redefining their mandate as more participatory and democratic, new leaders today are better applying their positions and personalities to serve their employees and meet the professed goals of their companies.

This article by Kati Najipoor-Schütte appeared in German in the Harvard Business Manager Special Edition “Macht” (€). Publication on our website by kind permission of the publisher.

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