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How does power affect our leaders?




American flag and microphoneAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Keith Grint, author of Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

As an academic (I teach at Warwick University, UK) this question reminds me of an exam question that I would set to try and separate out the more thoughtful from the less thoughtful students (an act of power in itself).

Traditionally we consider power to be locked into hierarchies – the higher you are the more power you have.

We also use language that implies power is a possession of individual leaders. That is to say, we talk of ‘powerful leaders’ and warn of the corrupting effects of being ‘too powerful’.

But what if power is not a possession?

If power is conceived of as a relationship between leaders and followers then several things should follow.

First, leaders cannot possess power – if followers comply with leaders then – and only then – are leaders (temporarily) given the resources to lead.

This explains why children do not always obey their parents, why employees resist their employer’s demands, and why armies sometimes mutiny.

Second, we cannot study leadership without studying followers – because leaders do not exist in the absence of followers.

Third, we might stop scape-goating leaders for collective problems because followers get the leaders they deserve – and leaders get the followers they deserve.

So, if the answer to the question, ‘how does power affect our leaders?’ is – ‘the question does not have a simple answer’, what might the alternative answers be?

Find out how you can use questions like “How does power affect our leaders?” in class.


Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management at Warwick University, UK. He is the author of Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press.

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