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Power & Leadership — What it Means to Lead

There’s a sense in people today, particularly among those in the younger generations, that individuals who hold positions of power live in relative isolation from those who do not, and that the systems which govern the economies of the world place little importance in the ground level people that allow it to function. Seen in this light, power can a debilitating force for those on the receiving end of it. In a much less visible manner, it can be equally debilitating for those that choose to wield it.

On power, Pulitzer Prize winner James MacGregor Burns (1978) wrote,

power is first of all a relationship and not merely an entity to be passed around like a baton or hand grenade; that it involves the intention or purpose of both power holder and power recipient; and hence that it is collective, not merely the behavior of one person.

Burns was a historian by trade. His work on the concept of transformational leadership has had a global effect on leadership studies, team building, and the application of psychological principles in the workplace.

Transformational leadership is a concept of power that sees a leader as an agent of progress. It shows us that power can be used in such a manner that it stimulates both powerholder and recipient, that the relationship between powerholder and recipient can be one of reciprocation and mutual fulfillment, and that this relationship can supercharge communication, spark innovation, strengthen engagement, and bring about measurable changes in performance that other expressions of power cannot.

The transformational leader, as influential and powerful as they may be, is bound by a simple truth: they must model the behaviors they wish to see in others.

They generate their power not through intimidation, or fear, or even rewards, but through trust and admiration. They hold values such as transparency, honesty, equity, and, above all else, integrity.

Without integrity, a leader's speeches and mission statements ring hollow, team-building and change initiatives come across as self-defeating, and expectations are set that the path to success involves selectively following the rules when they lead to one’s benefit.

With integrity however, leaders can catalyze productive behavior, and shape the culture of those they lead—insofar as the culture they shape stimulates their followers’ interests as well. They can lead from a position that lifts the whole team and speaks to each member's highest needs and senses of self.

These benefits certainly sound nice, but they admittedly may not strike a chord with business-minded readers. To that end, there is no shortage of evidence linking transformational leadership to financial performance. Readers may look to Avolio, Waldman, and Einstein (1988) to study transformational leadership’s positive correlations with market share, stock prices, and return on assets. Or Wang, Oh, Courtright, and Colbert (2011) for a meta-analysis of 113 organizations over a period of 25 years demonstrating significant positive relationships between transformational leadership and individual, team, and organizational performance. Or Tucker and Russell (2004) to understand how transformational leadership helps organizations maintain a consistent competitive advantage over the competition.

Many of these sources are not brand new. Transformational leadership has been around for decades, as has the evidence of its effect on employee well-being and organizational performance. While newer models have expanded upon or reconfigured some of transformational leadership's finer details, integrity in leadership is an enduring lesson that has important relevance in the world today.

With division between socioeconomic groups taking on more visibility in recent years, the fundamentals of power, leadership, and integrity deserve thorough and honest reflections. Integrity is difficult. It’s a complex topic that means different things to different people. Uncovering these differences requires nuanced discussions about ethics, stakeholders, and utility. Although tedious, these are discussions well worth having. Both for the benefit of powerholders and of those they intend to lead.

-Paul Grillo

Avolio, B. J., Waldman, D. A., & Einstein, W. O. (1988). Transformational leadership in a management game simulation: Impacting the bottom line. Group & Organization Studies, 13(1), 59–80.

Burns, J. M. G. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.

Tucker, B. A., & Russell, R. F. (2004). The influence of the transformational leader. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 10(4), 103-111.

Wang, G., Oh, I.-S., Courtright, S. H., & Colbert, A. E. (2011). Transformational leadership and performance across criteria and levels: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of research. Group & Organization Management, 36(2), 223–270.


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