Developing leaders often confuse leadership with one of the four “Ps”: Power, Position, Privilege and Property.

I recently confronted a leadership challenge very familiar to me. In a lead role, I wanted something specific to happen in connection with a very important matter. A team member, however, wanted something different. I had the ability to compel my wishes to be realized. Instead, I chose to reason with the team member, holding open the possibility that their will, rather than mine, would be realized. Other members of the team were puzzled. Why didn’t I just use my power as the leader to force what I wanted?

Developing leaders often confuse leadership with one of the four “Ps”: Power, Position, Privilege and Property.

As Aristotle recognized, man is a political and social animal, and much of human experience involves relationships. Of course, human relationships provide most of what we value, and there is much positive in social interactions. But experience working with groups also reveals the powerful negative feelings that relationships can produce. Given an opportunity to describe social experiences in organizational life, many people will unleash a torrent of complaints about their mistreatment at the hands of others. As Sartre wrote succinctly, “Hell is other people.” Much suffering arises from negative interactions in which powerful individuals dominate others. The quest for the Ps often springs from a desire to avoid such domination.

Because leaders often acquire the Ps, the practice of developing leadership skills sometimes drifts into an inquiry about how to increase dominance, how to “move up,” “get control,” “gain influence.” Leadership may be transformed into an exercise in acquiring, and often hording, desired resources. A new leader often wants to learn how to marshal the Ps effectively in order to get more and more of them, like a monopoly player who uses effective game strategy to own everything, converting competitors into losers.

Crucial insights about the nature of leadership can be gained from surfacing the dark material that informs using the Ps. What lurks within that dark side? The Ps share something unsettling: they work by depriving others of freedom. In human relations, what is power but the capacity to compel someone to do something irrespective of how they think or feel about it? Power is dominance. Similarly, position entails the ability to use one’s organizational status to bring power to bear upon a desired objective. Position is organizational power. An organization chart teaches people where they are in “the power structure.” Privilege involves having certain powers attached to one’s social identity. The privileged may use this power against others to achieve their goals. In turn, property is nothing more than resources (financial, tangible, human) that the owner may control without the consent of others. The more consent required, the less valuable the property. The Ps reinforce one another with extreme effectiveness. As the Ps grow, dominance increases exponentially.

So what does this have to do with leadership?  Nothing.  That’s the point.  The Ps stand in stark contrast to leadership.

So what does this have to do with leadership?

Nothing. That’s the point. The Ps stand in stark contrast to leadership. Through effective leadership, someone who lacks power, position, privilege or property, may nevertheless exert influence and create change. Stated another way, leadership can still work when the Ps fail. Leadership transcends power, position, privilege and property. Consider Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa from within an 8 foot square prison cell. The influence that emerges from leadership has a fundamentally different nature than the influence that the Ps afford.

The Ps carry an implicit message: follow my lead, or suffer a loss of freedom. People follow at the point of gun in order not to be shot. They follow a person of position in order to avoid ejection from the group. They follow a person of privilege in order to avoid social stigma. They follow money or property in order to avoid being cut off from such resources. Indeed, if a person has enough money and property, resources alone can no longer be used to influence them. The risk of separation from income is the fundamental coercive power in the modern workplace.

In contrast, leadership works through engaging and enhancing the freedom of others. In that sense, leadership transcends coercive and instrumental approaches to human relations. Leadership does not view other people as strategic objects, pieces on a chessboard. The baseline of the leadership approach is an appeal to free will. Such an approach inherently respects, preserves and cultivates individual freedom. The implicit message of leadership as an approach to human affairs is: follow me because you choose to do so, follow me freely because we have a shared vision, a shared destiny.

Leadership thinkers often lose track of this important insight because effective leadership may lead to entanglement with the Ps. The person who effectively engages the freedom of others may find themselves with strong allies, and with power, position, privilege and property. This is a critical moment. People may freely choose to follow those who also have the ability to compel them, to limit their choices. People may volunteer to follow the one with the gun, the one who is king, the one who has become elite, the one with the riches to purchase loyalty. But something in the bond will also be tested and distorted once domination comes into play. When domination enters the leadership arena, people may perceive a loss of freedom. Thus leaders risk becoming despots when they acquire and use the Ps.

Does it matter how the world changes, how people influence one another?

Isn’t the really important question about what happens, about the outcome? And what about “might for right?” Many leaders feel that they lose nothing in wielding the Ps to achieve justice. Many see “might for right” as a choice grounded in a realistic and pragmatic world view. After all, what is a just war? Why not use force to achieve good? Isn’t it OK to use force-military, economic, psychological, social-to achieve justice? But leadership as a practice in human relations questions “might for right,” offers a path beyond it.

Leadership transcends the implicit trade-off in which individual interests are sacrificed for community interests as a result of power relations. One who chooses justice freely, rather than being compelled to a just result, finds his or her individual interests served while responding to the interests of the community. In this way, leadership promotes future evolution while remaining robust in the face of shifting configurations of power. The problem with “might for right” is that the Ps are fleeting and temporal, and thus justice achieved through the Ps withers when the Ps erode, as they always do in the aftermath of war, politics, business and community conflicts. Justice built on top of power crumbles with the loss of power.

Choosing to use leadership rather than power made my life more challenging. Leadership calls forth the courage within us to transcend power, position, privilege and property, and to promote freedom on the road to justice. Leadership demands courage because, without the Ps, it offers a less certain path forward; it exposes us to the risk that others will not agree, will not follow freely. It confronts the potential for others to lead. But the reward warrants these risks, because justice freely chosen, achieved through the evolution of human freedom, has a special quality. Such justice endures.