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Powerlessness is as corrupting as power

Somnath Dasgupta        Print Edition: May 15, 2011

Being the boss: The three imperatives for becoming a great leader
By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback
Harvard Business Review Press
Pages: 284
Price: Rs 695

Linda A. Hill, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is known to generations of 'high potentials' as she calls them. She chairs the HBS leadership initiative and also the High Potentials Leadership Programme. After she wrote Becoming a Manager, she thought of putting her experience to work again, this time for leaders. Hill was recently in India to study some companies and also launch her book. She spoke at length on her book and experiences. Edited excerpts:

How did you get into this leadership business? You studied educational psychology…
When I was in graduate school, I was looking at creativity and what kind of organisations produce the most creative people. I am still studying that. But I was just as surprised as you - I actually thought I would be a professor probably at a public health school. I ended up deciding that, being in business, I could perhaps have more impact.

Because I am motivated by how do you improve the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. I think I kind of discovered that when I did my post-doc in business at Harvard, and began to look at how do you have impact, how do you have influence... You can do it by going into the non-profit sector, which is what I had assumed I would do. But then the other way to do it is to go right into business.

Are you talking only of the CEO level?
I actually wrote Being the Boss based on my experiences of working with more experienced managers…. Part of the reason why I wrote Being the Boss was so many experienced managers read Becoming a Manager. Recently I got a call from a person who had just found out that he was not going to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Basically the reason he was derailed is because he has never been able to build really strong and trusting relationships with peers.And nowadays, because of global business, companies have to reach out and do integrated business, they [his company] became concerned about that. Well, that problem is a problem he has had all along. So when people derail because of the personal issues, the people issues, they were often the same problems they had early on, that were never addressed. It's not that you need to write a different book about that…. The book is not for CEOs.

About Being the Boss, what are the three imperatives??
A number of senior people were reading Becoming a Manager. One of the people who did that was my co-author, Kent, who was an executive, he came to me and said, you know I find your writing very clear. We decided to write a book together. I said, you are an executive, I am an academic, let's write a book together that will be really useful for people like yourself.

And so we sat down to write that, and decided to make it very practical. A lot of times these books on leadership have long lists of leadership competencies. We wanted ours to be as parsimonious as possible. And the order is very deliberate. The first one is managing yourself, because you are using yourself as an instrument to get things done. The second one is about managing your network. And that's because unless you create the conditions necessary for your team to be effective, no way are you going to be effective. So you've got to manage relationships with bosses and peers because if you don't do that right, you don't set the right expectations for your team.

Number three is finally managing your team, the group over which you have formal authority. The team is at the bottom, which is the opposite of what most people think. And frankly, the problem is if you don't think that way, you are not going to be very effective as a leader any way. Because if you keep relying on formal authority, even in cultures where formal authority matters, it doesn't get you anywhere.

You need people who are deeply engaged in the work, who are willing to share their ideas with you. They will only do that if they deeply respect you.

From 2008, there is a huge disillusionment with leaders in general…
I try to develop leaders who come into my life. I actually think - and I am not naïve about this - but I think most business people are very wellintended and not as greedy as we actually think. I am serious.

We used to teach a power and influence course at Harvard, which many people think [is about] how do you get power etc. Part of the reason I wrote Being the Boss, seriously, is because I believe powerlessness is as corrupting as power. And people are often corrupted because they think they are powerless…. So if you can actually help people feel more powerful and understand how they can be powerful, they are much more likely to behave in ways that you and I will be happy about.

And one of the things that I have tried to do in my work is to help people understand how they can have impact and power very early on in their careers. I don't think that they are not well-intentioned, but I think they don't know how to exercise influence.

When you talk to people about why they behaved unethically, they will tell you it was the system, that they were part of the system where they had no choice but to behave in a particular way. And unless you tell people that they do have choices and this is how you exercise them, then I think that systems do lead people to behave in ways that are varied, and people are shocked!

We learn that, many times it is not that people don't have values… they just don't know how to exercise those values. Sometimes you exercise those values, and you have to make a sacrifice, right? That happens, that's life!

So I mean, I understand what happened in 2008, was it just greed? I think it's a more complex story than that. But I also think that sometimes, we inadvertently send the wrong signals to people about what we really care for.

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