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Power versus leadership: the makings of a leader

Dwight Eisenhower claimed that the measure of good leadership is convincing people to do what the leader wants, but not because they have to, but because they want to. It means that not everyone who is in power is a leader. It also means that it is the subordinates who can speak of the leader’s charisma, not the leader himself or herself, explains Dr. Dorota Wiśniewska-Juszczak, psychologist, Head of the professional certification and training program, Creative Leadership: Effective and creative team management, at SWPS University.

How do leaders emerge? Experts have been debating this issue for years. The main dispute occurs between social psychologists and those who specialize in personality psychology. Social psychologists claim that some people have greatness thrust upon them, i.e. they become leaders due to circumstances in which they found themselves, while personality psychologists say that some people are born great, i.e. that their personality predisposes them to leadership or at least helps them to become leaders. Up to the 1950s, the so called “great man” theory, developed by personality psychologists, was considered to be the closets to the truth. However, the theory was abandoned due to the lack of consistent conditioning and correlations in research results. Recently, the concept has been revived thanks to the use of meta-analysis, a statistical method that combines the results from multiple studies in a given research area, which have confirmed that personality plays a significant role in achieving leadership positions. However, it must be noted that it is not a cause and effect process, but merely a correlation.

What makes a leader?

Research indicates that leadership character traits include: intelligence, manliness, extraversion, openness, diligence, and domination. All these characteristics together enable individuals to become leaders. In particular, two of these traits deserve a closer look. In case of domination, observers often mistake it for competence. What helps to create this impression is the way dominant people speak, i.e. with conviction and often louder than others. On the other hand manliness is treated here very stereotypically and refers to the lack of hesitation. It does not mean that women cannot or do not want to become leaders, on the contrary. However, they must face social expectations related to equating leadership with manliness.

Situations may create good or bad leaders. Power and subordination are in a dynamic correlation and the proportions that emerge between them influence the way the team and the leader work together.

Leadership styles

When a group of people expands to the point that they need to take on different roles, someone naturally emerges as the leader or is chosen to be the leader. The question is how the leader fulfills his or her role. Psychologists frequently mention two management styles: authoritarian (task-oriented) and democratic (social). The authoritarian style is sometimes perceived in a negative light, especially in organizations or teams that value shared decision making. As numerous meta-analyzes show, the democratic (social) style is more effective in raising job satisfaction, increasing the level of leader appreciation and increasing motivation of employees than the task-oriented leadership. However, both styles have a similar impact on effectiveness.

The authoritarian style is especially effective in two extreme cases: in conditions favorable to the leader, who knows the team well and can afford to impose the task-oriented working style and also in very unfavorable conditions, for example when the selection of the leader is controversial. In these cases, focusing on the task and its completion sends a signal to the group that the person in charge is a professional.

The democratic leadership style is a natural choice, when the relations between the leader and the team are difficult. This style is often preferred, because it helps to ease the situation and because it is believed that tight teams, where people are friendly with each other and understand each other, work better. Nevertheless, studies show that it is not the best solution.

Some social scientists distinguish yet another management style – the charismatic style. It turns out that this style is the most effective of the three, however, charismatic leaders are rare birds. Charismatic leaders are able to inspire enthusiasm in their teams, despite setting high expectations, by believing that their subordinates are capable of achieving team goals. Here, charisma is understood as a special kind of relationship between the leader and the team. What characterizes the charismatic management style is mindfulness in relation to other people, the willingness to see their potential and the ongoing feedback related to their development. Charismatic leaders have a mission, a vision and know how to lead the team to achieve both.

Power does not equal leadership

Why do many managers do not know how to apply the above-mentioned management styles and how to successfully lead their teams, despite having theoretical knowledge on management? This is the effect of being in power, which changes one’s perception of reality and influences behavior. A situation may create good or bad leaders. Power and subordination are in a dynamic correlation and the proportions that emerge between them influence the way the team and the leader work together.

Between power and subordination

It is enough to imagine being in a position of power or vice versa – imagine following someone’s orders, to activate what scientists call the power or subordination attitude. Research clearly shows that people with the activated power attitude are able to make decisions much faster, although they not always have enough supporting data. They are capable of abstract thinking and they do not notice as many obstacles on the way to achieving their goals. Being in the position of power, even for a short period of time, triggers the drive to succeed, which in turn activates task implementation functions. Simply put, it means that people in power are strongly motivated to act.

On the other hand, being in subordinate positions has the opposite effect. Subordination activates avoidance, which impedes the executive functions. In particular, this happens when leaders emphasize the subordination aspect in the relation to their teams. In this case, managers are under the impression that their teams are incompetent, lack creativity, make mistakes and are slow, which is in stark contrast to the leadership. Why does it happen? Because the courage to take risks and decisiveness are the results of different perception of reality, caused by being in the position of power. It also stems from more freedom in decision making and the freedom to manage resources, as one sees fit. People in power focus on the possibilities that the position of power provides rather than on limitations.

To give up power and remain a leader

A crucial aspect in the process of becoming a good or a bad leader is managers’ willingness to learn about the perspective, limitations, capabilities and motivations of their subordinates. Unfortunately, managers often distance themselves from their teams and in effect, they are not able to achieve the goals that were set for the team. The more authoritarian the leader, the more passive the team. Motivating the team requires giving some responsibility to the team members, instead of amplifying the status of a powerful leader, but still maintaining the potential that the leadership affords. This allows not only the leader, but also the team to feel the satisfaction from a job well done.


dorota wiśniewska juszczak

About the Author

Dorota Wiśniewska-Juszczak, Ph.D. - social psychologist, lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University. Head of the professional certification and training program Creative Leadership: Effective and creative team management, at SWPS University. In her research work she focuses on various aspects of power and leadership, including the positive and negative effects of power and subordination. She also researchers the effects of various influencing strategies on subordinates. As trainer and consultant, she specialized in team communication and in building effective teams. She has developed an innovative technique for the assessment of leadership potential and is a certified Insights Discovery and Solution Focused Brief Therapy trainer.

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