Beware the power-hungry boss

Published October 24 2013
Updated November 8 2013

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves." — Lao Tzu

Have you ever observed a leader with his or her staff and wondered how the employees could stand working for that boss?

There may be many reasons for bad bosses, but one that really seems offensive to many of us is that of power-hungry leaders. Those leaders definitely do not share leadership or power with their employees, but instead try to keep all the power of their positions for themselves. They see power as a fixed sum — if one person has more, than others have less.

Most of us can easily identify what shared power looks like, and certainly we know when it doesn't exist. It only takes one example to see how a boss either shares his or her leadership and power or hoards it. Perhaps the leader gives a talk and constantly mentions his/her own accomplishments without highlighting the staff sitting in the audience who were the ones who really did the work. Just the use of the word "we" vs. "I" can be quite telling when it comes to who shares leadership.

Leaders who are good at sharing power talk to people as equals. They treat people as humans, rather than boss vs. workers. Those who are not good at sharing power spend their time with people they feel are higher in status than they are, and they ignore those who fall below them in the food chain.

Just watch people as they are meeting others for the first time. Do they genuinely seem interested in everyone they meet, no matter what their position in the firm? Or do they quickly discount those who are lower in status or position than they are, and instead move on to more important people?

People who share power also occasionally work in the trenches with their employees. No job is too dirty or boring or trivial that they would not also be willing to do it. Their employees see this — they recognize that their leader is willing to work long hours in poor conditions, etc., just like they are. They respect the leader for this. On the other hand, leaders who leave the employees with all the grunt work and are never willing to be in the trenches do not gain the respect of their employees.

Information is also handled differently from those who hoard power vs. those who share it. Some leaders are overly secretive and don't want others to know what is going on. The saying "knowledge is power" is certainly true, but it is still okay to share information. If your team does not know what is going on, they can't be as effective. Employees will also see you as hoarding information for your own personal gain.

On the other hand, if the leader shares information, the team can try to figure out how to best help the leader. Effective leaders communicate with their employees to let them know what is going on.

I have coached many employees who told me how they had no idea what decisions were being made, what appointments were being scheduled, what clients would be visiting the firm, etc., and therefore, they could not figure out how to better assist their bosses.

There are a lot of problems that result when leaders do not share power. Those who have false perceptions of their own importance and power spend a lot of time reinforcing it, showcasing it and trying to protect it. Their hoarding of power leads to feelings of powerlessness among others. I have heard some employees in these work units say they were thrilled when their bosses weren't at work since it was more relaxing for everyone else there, and they could concentrate on doing their jobs without the presence of the powerful boss.

If you build a team where you share power, you actually become more powerful. Why? Because you have a staff of employees who will do anything for you. They will support you and do whatever it takes to make you and the team successful. If, on the other hand you keep all the power for yourselves, be prepared to find a new staff every few years because you'll probably lose the talented workers you have. It's your choice.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the vice dean of the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Programs offered by the school. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management.