One of the Hardest Lessons for Leaders: Learning to Relinquish Power

December 11, 2015 9:55 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

The journey towards a leadership role and the eventual attainment of that position can be viewed as a rise to a position of power. Building and wielding social power is clearly a primary factor in leadership advancement. And while accepting a role with extended conferred or position power may represent the culmination of hard work and effort, it often comes as a rude awakening to many leaders when they realize that part of being in power means sharing or even giving up that power to others.
It’s sort of a catch 22: you work to gain power, so you can relinquish it. In the eyes of the unseasoned, this might seem counterintuitive, however those with refined leadership capabilities understand that relinquishing power where necessary is one of the most important ways to increase effectiveness.


How to build your “power bank” Relinquishing power isn’t about becoming a subordinate again—it’s about influencing those around you for the common good. But what does it mean to relinquish power as a leader? It certainly doesn’t mean removing yourself as an authority or detaching yourself from responsibility. Instead, giving up power while you’re in a leadership role means flexibly managing relationships, using various influence strategies matched to situations, teams and individuals.


One simple way of looking at how successful leaders produce impact through others is how they use what could be called the “social power bank”. Excellent leaders “deposit” power in the bank through techniques such as creating a safe, empowering work environment; developing talented team members to whom work can be delegated; providing positive, helpful feedback; generating opportunities for personal and professional growth; and rewarding and recognizing superior performance.


What power “withdrawal” strategies work best?

Building the social power bank is a necessary ingredient for sharing the wealth of power with others. No leader can be effective alone and no leader can engage team members to get work done without transferring responsibilities in one form or another. This process occurs through power “withdrawals” using various influence tactics:

  • High-level withdrawals, as in a crisis or interventions with an individual or team with limited capabilities, often require more directive or “push” approaches (e.g., through giving directions, demands, pressure, requests for commitment);
  • Intermediate-level withdrawals, as in significant problem-solving or change initiatives, often benefit from more collaborative or coaching approaches (e.g., through providing feedback, pursuing consensus, using emotional or logical persuasion); and
  • Low-level withdrawals, such as forming relationships, sharing resources, giving support to others benefit from a more reflective or accepting stance (e.g., through finding common purpose, sharing emotions or insights, providing attention or resources). In many instances, these forms of influence end up “depositing” more power than it withdrawn.


So, how should leaders decide what power approach to take? When should a leader begin to portion out responsibility? Who is deserving of the power that comes with shared or delegated responsibility? What fail-safes need to be in place to prevent the damage that can come with misuse of power? All of these questions become part of the leadership development process as leaders learn how to determine what power stance to take in various situations. The key starting point is to understand the nature of social power and its impact on leadership success.


The role of power for future leaders The challenge of managing power for future leaders will be increasingly demanding. Changing workforce and social dynamics will make workers less trusting of and less dependent on individual leaders with position power. The increasing availability of technology-enabled expertise and emerging impact of team sharing and networks will make individual leaders less powerful in many situations. In other words, more empowered work environments with more shared responsibility for creating and managing organizational “power banks will become the norm. And, since human beings still respond to one another in influence relationships; building, sharing, and conferring power will still be a critical skill – but, I believe, a more complex capability to manage.


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This post was written by Dr. Stephen C. Schoonover