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Leadership and the Only Power that Really Matters

August 10, 2018  |  Deke Copenhaver
In surveying the political landscape in cities throughout our nation I’ve often heard a recurring question, “should the mayor have more power?” As a student of organizational structure, I believe for any organization to maximize its efficiency and effectiveness there must be a clear cut chain of command with some degree of centralized authority. If neither of these measures are in place within the organizations we serve, whether they be businesses or governments, the old adage “when everyone’s in charge, no one is in charge” becomes plainly apparent. Providing final decision making authority to a committee can often lead to disastrous results. I’ve both watched and experienced firsthand the crippling effect committees experiencing “analysis paralysis” can have on the decision making process.

However, if power is too centralized the results can be equally as disastrous. Having a dictatorial organizational framework, where a leader is permitted to make unilateral decisions in silos, allows for personal bias to enter the equation versus focusing on the greater good of the entire organization. We’ve all witnessed how decisions made in a vacuum lead to the law of unintentional consequences, kicking in almost immediately with an ensuing ripple effect. The business world and the world of politics are rife with examples of this type of decision making and the prolonged damage it can do. History has no shortage of individuals who’ve been given absolute power over the fate of their organizations, falling prey to making self-serving decisions while falling from grace shortly thereafter. Suffice it to say “benevolent dictatorships” are only successful if the dictators leading them are, in fact, benevolent. Unfortunately, benevolent dictators simply aren’t easy to come by.

So what’s the answer? Should mayors, CEO’s, nonprofit executives or any other organizational leadership positions be given more power? During my time serving in leadership positions in the private, public and nonprofit sectors, I’ve come to the realization that the answer ultimately lies in how we choose to define power. There seems to me to be a misconception that in any given situation, more control leads to more power. However, this overlooks the power which I find to be the most effective tool in any great leader’s tool box which isn’t at all derived from control: the power to inspire.

I’ve often made the observation titles don’t make people leaders and that you simply don’t have to have a title to lead. Titles such as CEO, President, Mayor or Governor can command respect but none of these titles confers upon any one given individual the mantle of leadership. Just because someone has had the ability to win an election or climb to the C-suite of their organization doesn’t mean they have innate leadership skills. Conversely, some of the greatest leaders throughout history had no real titles, but yet were able to use their power to inspire to affect positive change in the world around them. One of the greatest examples of this comes from one of my personal heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King didn’t derive his power from being able to control people but rather became a civil rights icon due to his ability to inspire others around him to unite around a common vision which ultimately changed the course of history.

In today’s world success for many seems to have become defined as getting results by any means necessary. However, it’s my firm belief that the true definition of success for leaders must include an adherence to honor, integrity, service and character. Having the ability to lift up those around you by establishing a common purpose, vision and goal should also play a key role in defining success. The win at all cost mentality can often lead to winning elections or huge corporate profits, but the damage done to society as a whole through adhering to this mindset far outweighs any momentary glory for the perceived winners. Although Bernie Madoff was able to achieve a level of wealth and success most can only dream of, his power was only fleeting. Being viewed as an inspirational and transformational leader is something he was never able to achieve.

Throughout my life I’ve been influenced by the ethical leadership of very successful men and women alike. My father grew up on a farm, was one of five children, and was raised by a single mother during the Great Depression. From humble beginnings he worked his way up to being a very successful CEO who was admired for his kindness and integrity by those he worked with. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, a mentor to me during my time in office, had a long, distinguished career marked by major achievements and was beloved by the majority of his constituents. Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, a friend and strong influencer in my life, was able to rally the business community in support of her courageous and successful initiative to address $3 billion in upgrades to her city’s aging infrastructure. These are just a few of many examples as I’ve come to realize I never had to look far for inspiration in others around me.

There are no shortage of examples of people in leadership positions who have used their platforms to achieve groundbreaking successes as well as earth scorching failures. In answer to the question I began with, granting more power to mayors or any individual in an organizational leadership position, is a complex issue with pros and cons that will always be debated. Ultimately, I’ll leave the answer up to those who grapple with this question in organizations throughout our nation and our world on a daily basis.

It is my firm belief through watching and learning from the great leaders I’ve come in contact with that they all have in common one simple trait: they didn’t focus on seeking power but rather to empower those around them. For me the only real power that matters for transformational leaders is the power to inspire.
DEKE COPENHAVER
Deke Copenhaver is Principal with the Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.