Don't Be a Powerless Leader

A client of mine once put it so eloquently: We lead most effectively when we aren’t trying to be a leader.

— Precisely. —

In our over-marketed society, any intentional attempt to lead comes across as a sales message and thus, especially among young people, triggers skepticism and defenses.

We wisely don’t align ourselves with leaders who — even if they can’t see it — send clear signals that they consider themselves to be weak.In something of an irony, it’s your casual, unguarded language, the phrases you use in everyday speech, that tend to influence others much better than your carefully constructed management memos, speeches, or pronouncements. And just as importantly, your unvarnished utterances also betray your true orientation to the world and signal your worthiness as a leader.  

How familiar do these phrases ring?

Well, what can you do?

Nobody asked me.

I didn’t make the decision.

If that’s what they want, I guess that’s what we’ll have to deliver.

Such statements are the speech of an impotent management mindset. And it’s poison in the well of your leadership credibility.

When your colleagues hear declarations of organizational impotence like these coming out of you, they conclude: You see yourself as powerless. You are yielding — giving away — control and influence to others. You don’t have the moxie, the courage, to take a stand, to challenge convention, to do what leaders do.

This isn’t, of course, to suggest that you ought see yourself as omnipotent — you’re not and shouldn’t try to be. Nor is it to say that you can’t ever allow that you lost a political battle, or even share with your team that you see a decision differently from the ultimate decision-maker or influential dissenters. If you sense that you don’t have the confidence of the people you are supposed to lead, you need to understand why that is.

The difference between using the weak language profiled above and taking a contrary stand from a position of strength is in the confidence you feel (and exude) about you and your place in your situation.

A leader who uses weak language believes him|herself to be be weak and most of us know that. So we wisely don’t align ourselves with leaders who — even if they can’t see it — send clear signals that they consider themselves to be weak and unworthy of our full confidence.

In many surveys and studies, people indicate that honesty and credibility are the leadership qualities they find most essential in the people they willingly follow. What is more essential to exuding honesty and credibility than having genuine faith in yourself?

If you sense that you don’t have the confidence of the people you are supposed to lead, you need to understand why that is. In my coaching work with leaders, we often find that it is because the led correctly perceive something the manager has not admitted to himself: That he is missing a feeling of power or competence to affect outcomes on the job — ingredients essential to effective leadership.

Fortunately, with a little work on some underlying distortions in self-perceptions a competent manager can (re)discover his or her capabilities and strengthen latent leadership capability.

To lead others, you must first fully believe in you before asking others to believe in you. Because real leaders have people believing in them even when they aren’t asking them to.

— Don Blohowiak
Leadership Coach


I don???t think I???m alone when I admit that I???ve had issues with power, probably for most of my life. Julia Timonina

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

I agree that confidence is important, but there's an important question underlying this article: should the leader be the strongest, the best, and the most confident person in the room? Leadership in most meetings is not and should not be like leadership in a dog pack: the alpha male need not be the leader. One thing that sets human "packs" apart is that we've learned that sometimes apparent weakness conceals valuable strengthes. Leadership is often rotated by smart management to give those who are weak or inexperienced an opportunity to learn to lead. We've advanced past the point of picking the last man standing as leader. That's inefficient and wastes resources. Leadership by example is a good technique - but it's not the only one. We've all seen lots of managers who manage like Socrates: they may well know the answer to the question they ask, but by seeming not to, they elicit responses from timid subordinates. Furthermore, as comedian Chris Rock pointed out, we're all going to be in situations where the leader is not as smart or hip or tuned in as we are. His father's advice to him was that he should learn to do his job in that situation. I worked for a boss once who thought I was smarter than he was. He asked me "how am I supposed to manage a guy who's smarter than I am." I told him "the same way you manage a guy who's not." It was, after all, my job to follow him. He was a good boss. Of course there are leaders who are an absolute liability - we've all worked for them (and some of us have been such leaders from time to to time.) But if you are going to be a competent member of any team, it's your job to act "as if" the leader is a good leader. And the way to do that is to be a good follower.


...and the opposition, for their part believe otherwise, does history define the leadership quality? Is caution ever warranted? Confidence is redefined as bluff and bluster depending on the outcome. Was General Custer a good leader? I dare say many thought so at some point.


Actually, I've found recently that worse than the powerless leader (one who admits he has no power) is the Powderless Leader - one who insists on acting as if he is the final arbiter on all matters, but lacks the gun powder to stick to his guns when the opposition arises. I work under a man who consistently lays out direction, sends us on our way, only to find later in the process that he didn't get the approval required, that our entire project is derailed and we're in trouble for undertaking it in the first place. All because the boss won't stand up for the work we're doing, the work we should be doing, and the direction he believes we should take.


As I have weathered life?s experiences, I have made mistakes with the best looking on. One of my life changing moments was over 25 years ago when my manager summarized my steps (using a mini-root cause) after I made a very visible mistake, mentioned that he may have made the same choices, and said that only those who do little work and avoid decisions make no mistakes. He turned my (large) mistake into an invaluable learning experience and predicted that I would have more ?learning? experiences; so keep up the good work, expand my risk analysis for the possible choices, and above all embrace decision making using a repeatable process. Now, in my later years, I see a crop of very bright techies stepping up to the plate. I learned long ago that ?telling? them what to do is no good and dampens the spirit; managing technical people is far more challenging than managing non-technical people. For SOP, I expect fairly rigid steps to be followed, but for exceptions and precedents, I talk with the person or team, making sure that we have the same understanding of the goal, governance, and compliance guidelines, then solicit and discuss choices with repercussions (before the fact). I am frequently (unpleasantly) surprised with some of the choices considered and can tell when not much thought (or study) has been spent on the problem. Executive managers never know that we dodged some major ?learning? experiences and only see a stable and predictable platform. I am also frequently (pleasantly) surprised at the ingenuity these young men use to formulate solutions and can tell those who have truly prepared. I agree that a good leader makes one of the best followers, can switch roles seamlessly, and expend the mental effort to always be schooling my replacement.

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