Sunday, March 17, 2013

St Patrick's Day or Leadership & Power

Where I live, in West Michigan, St. Patrick's Day has become a big deal.  In 1984, it was nothing like it is now.  It was much more laid back then - now there is a massive street festival and loads of people dressed... well, oddly.  As St Patrick's Day is on a Sunday this year, it seems a full-blown all-out party is called for, starting Friday and going until late on Sunday.

The thing is, people are having a lot of fun. That works for me.

When I played in a band in 1984 (and later) people looked at us blankly because we did not play "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" or "Danny Boy" or "McNamara's Band" or... other stuff.  Instead we played a mix of traditional tunes, songs we learned, picked up or collected when a bunch of us were students in the West of Ireland.

We had an absolute blast.

We have gone our separate ways and life has had us move on.  We run into people playing songs we had played 20 years (or more) ago in this area for the first time - as in, no one had played them live in this area.  If you looked really really hard, you might find a cassette tape of some band playing them.  A couple of times yesterday, I ran into bands playing music we played.  I smiled.

During one break, an excited musician, beer in hand, came up to me and said "You're Pete, right?  I used to listen to your CD's when I was a kid. You guys were great!  If it wasn't for you guys we would not be playing!"  It dawned on me that this excited (and fairly accomplished) played was not born when we played our first public gig.

I was musing on this as I walked home form the local yesterday evening, surrendering the night's revelries to others who were also not yet born the first time Whiskey In The Jar was played in this town.

An office building with large windows and a cubicle farm to be ween within was along my route.  One of the cubicles had a sign proclaiming "All Power Corrupts."  That made me totally change my thoughts until I walked in the front door of my house.

What is Power?

What is it about Power that Corrupts?

As I am to be speaking shortly in San Diego on Leadership, this has filled much of my thoughts since I saw that sign.

The odd thing is, Power is not a physical, tangible thing.  There may be reactions to Power, but like the wind, power itself can not be seen.  We see reactions to wind, trees moving, sometimes being up rooted, but not the wind itself.

Power describes a relationship between entities - people or groups of people or, well, you get the idea.

What is of far greater interest to me, and bears directly on leadership ideas and why some people seek leadership roles, is: Why do people seek power? 

This, perhaps, lies at the root of the idea that power corrupts.  One person sees another behaving in ways they did not expect - perhaps rather like a despot or tyrant, perhaps more of a martinet, possibly they display a criminal sense of entitlement.  To some, they appear to have changed.  Probably for the worse.

I might suggest that the evidence was there all along as to how they would behave and it is to the "exceptions" that the evidence lies.  Those who seek power for its own sake are rare.  Rather, they seek power for what they can do with that power.

What can they do with the relationship is the question.

What will they do as they achieve the amount of power they seek? 

I suspect, for most active seekers of power, the answer is to look for more power, or different power.  You see, most people with a deep thirst find they want more.  I suspect that Power as it is normally understood, is a bit like cocaine.  The first taste is amazing!

And then that rush fades and you seek more. So more cocaine, or power, is needed to fill the void and get the same feeling back.  Except it becomes almost impossible to get the same level back.  So you seek more to exercise more.  And you spiral into... something.

The problem I have, perhaps an indicator of potential problems, is what do people mean when they say they want to move into "leadership" positions?  Why do they want to be a leader?  Do they look for power in some form?  Are the looking for something else?  A larger paycheck?  More ornament on their uniform or business card?

Matt Heusser makes the observation that you are a leader if people are following what you do.  If you are not, then you are some guy going for a walk.

The interesting thing is that most people I know who are leaders, and have attained a certain amount of power in the testing community, are leaders precisely because they did, and continue to do, what was right for them.  No consultant or anyone else gave them a template on how to be a leader.  In fact, I believe the closest thing there is to a guide for being a leader is Jerry Weinberg's Becoming a Technical Leader - Read it if you have not already done so.

If you wish to be a leader, then know why you do.  If you seek power, then know why you do.

Be honest with yourself about doing so.

If you are not, then you stand to become another example of how "power corrupts."

As for me, some young kids I once knew are going to be playing music shortly at a pub where their dad and I played the first Irish music played at that bar,  We played in the band that convinced them to drop the sports bar direction they were going and embrace the "Irish" theme, before it became so common and plastic.

I've heard the do nice arrangements of songs I wrote.  I'd like to hear them.


  1. Hmmm, your post got me thinking as well and got me remembering my Open Uni course on management and how there are 5 types of power.
    You can have power if you are an expert or have a great network - do people with these purposefully set out to become leaders and get power ? or because they have them they become them ? Are these powers as corrupting as the types of power that come from a title ?

    1. Did I suggest that the type of power mattered? My question is simple - Why do you seek power? DO you see power?

      Consider Tolkein's words he gave to Aragorn, speaking to Boromir in Fellowship of the Rings:
      "Perilous indeed," said Aragorn, "Fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them,"

  2. The interesting thing about having a voice in any community is the fact you CAN quit if you really want to. It's always possible to stop talking. If you hate certain parts of it, or you hate where it's taking you, it is possible to take your ball & go home.

    It pains me to see my blog go silent. It sure beats the level of bullying crap I put up with in 2011 though.

    So, does that make people willing to put it with it stronger than me? More hungry to be leaders, more willing to share despite the down sides? I don't know. Maybe it makes them more stubborn, because when some people follow you, there are always some why will try to stand in your way, and others who throw rocks when you walk by. Part of leadership is what you do about those who aren't following you. That is one aspect that interests me.

    I've heard some people glorify the poor, because the poor have little power. I've seen some pure ugliness due to poverty that greed can hardly touch. It's hard to say which is worse. They aren't mutually exclusive. I've been told that I'm cynical and cold because I don't want to win the lottery. I simply don't believe that a windfall of money would make my life better. If you don't buy that dream, you don't buy the ticket. I'd rather have a dollar in retirement savings. You think it doesn't make a difference and what if I die before I ever retire? Well, then maybe my money will go to something I value more than a dream that I don't believe in? It's a no lose situation for me.

    So, power. What if I guy takes a walk and people follow because they like where he's going? Or better yet, what if simply want things to change for YOU and the only way that can is for everyone else around you to change?? In that case, you may not want to lead, but is it a price you will pay to change the status quo?

  3. If the guy is taking a walk for his own purposes, without caring if anyone is following, then one has become a leader without intending to. Hence, I see little risk in the "power" from that, presuming he continues where he intended and is not swayed by the presence of people coming behind.

    There is no single answer that is fits all.

    Interesting comment with much to think on, Thank you.