Power and Leadership

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

There is a sense among many in the world today that those in positions of power live in relative isolation from the wants and needs of others. That the machinations which run the economies of the world place no importance in the rusting of a small screw in relation to the turning of massive cogs.

Power wielded in such a way can be a debilitating force for those on the receiving end of it—hopelessly blunting the individual’s motivation to reach their true full potential. But what is less often understood is the debilitating effect that such power can have on the wielder itself.

On power, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James MacGregor Burns wrote,

that 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, 1978, p. 23)

Burns is an interesting figure in I-O Psychology, for while he himself was not a practitioner, he was the first to fully describe a concept known as Transformational Leadership.

Transformational Leadership demonstrates the limits of raw power by providing us with an example of its alternative. It shows us that power can be wielded in a manner that stimulates both wielder and recipient. That the relationship between wielder 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 simply cannot.

The truly authentic 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, but through trust and admiration.

They hold values such as transparency, honesty, equity, and fairness, and none more highly than integrity—for the effectiveness of the Transformational Leader is contingent upon the continuous buy-in of those they lead. Without integrity, 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 following rules selectively to one’s benefit.

With integrity, the Transformational Leader is able to catalyze productive behavior throughout their followership. They are able to prod and shape the culture of those they lead insofar as they stimulate their followers’ efficacy and autonomy. They are able to lead their followers from a position that lifts one another up, and speaks to each's highest needs and senses of self.

Understandably, while these effects may sound wonderful to an I-O Psychologist dutifully tuned in to the mental states of workers and staff within an organization, they may not exactly strike a chord with a corporate manager looking to improve their quarterly sales data. Luckily, there is no shortage of evidence linking Transformational Leadership to measurable financials. Interested parties may look to Avolio, Waldman, and Einstein (1985) 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 they may look to Tucker and Russell (2004) to understand how Transformational Leadership helps an organization maintain a consistent advantage over their competition.

It may strike you that these sources are not brand new. Transformational Leadership has been around for a while now, and so has the evidence of its effect on employee well-being as well as organizational performance. Why then is it not a household concept being implemented with haste around the world?

Well for one thing, it’s not always easy to implement. The specific demands of the Transformational Leader can be complex, and are often tough to measure with accuracy.

Integrity in particular is a difficult concept to communicate effectively. True integrity requires an honesty with one’s self just as much as an honesty with others. And even after a potentially difficult period of introspection, understanding what a commitment to integrity looks like in a leader is no simple task. Before one is able to walk the walk, they must first know what that walk actually entails. Figuring this out requires nuanced discussions about ethics, stakeholders, and utility.

But It is my belief that these are discussions well worth having. Both for the benefit of power-wielders 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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