The Most Common Executive Struggles – Part 5 – Wrong Power Base

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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The most important job of an executive is to influence the employees in the organization to fulfill the mission of the organization.

An executive’s ability to influence depends upon how much power he or she holds. The more power, the greater the influence.

In my work with executives, I have found that most executives seek to influence their employees from the wrong power base.

Two Power Bases

There are two different power bases that executives can lead from.

First, executives can lead from an organizational power base. When this happens, executives lean upon the power derived from their position to influence others. This comes in different forms:

  • Authority: “We are going to do it this way because I am in charge.”
  • Reward: “If you sell 100 widgets, I will reward you with $10,000.”
  • Coercive: “If you can’t get this right, then you are out of a job.”

When leaders lead with organizational power, employees follow or are influenced by them because they feel like they HAVE TO do what they say.


Second, executives can lead from a personal power base. In order for an executive to possess personal power, they must BE someone that others WANT TO follow. They develop a relationship and standing with their employees, such that when they ask for help or support, the employees are willing and eager to perform without coercion.

Which Type of Power is Most Commonly Used?

Unfortunately, the power base that most executives primarily operate from is the organizational power base.

Why is this? It is because organizational power is:

  • Easier to gain – all one needs to do is get promoted to a position of power
  • It is easier to use – wielding organizational power generally results in immediate action

And, personal power is:

  • Harder to gain – it requires that the executive become a person that others want to follow
  • It is harder to use – There is no coercion involved and there is uncertainty about how quickly employees might respond

Now, I think it is impossible for an executive to lead 100% from a personal power base. But, a question to ask yourself is, “What is my ratio of use between organizational and personal power?”

Consequences of Operating from an Organizational Power Base

There are three main consequences that I see in organizations where the executives lead primarily from an organizational power base.

First, executives that lead through organizational power often are productive, but they generally operate as command-and-control leaders that struggle to delegate and empower.

Second, they create a culture of escalation. With communication going top-down and not bottom-up and the absence of empowerment, employees in the organization are either unwilling or unable to resolve the problems that they face. Thus, every time a problem comes up, even little problems, it is commonly brought to the level of executives. As a result, the executives tend to operate, not as leaders, but as fire fighters.

Third, organizational power ensures things get done (i.e., it prevents poor performance), but it never leads to operational excellence.

How to Lead from a Personal Power Base More?

If we want to lead from a personal power base more, fundamentally, this requires that we BECOME more of someone that others want to follow.

This requires vertical development, we have got to continually work on improving our BEING.

Additionally, one must develop a clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric purpose. It is much easier to positively influence people to fulfill a mission if they feel that mission is worth fulfilling.

Ask Yourself

Check in with yourself.

  • How diligent are you in vertically developing yourself?
  • And, does your organization have a clear, inspirational, and stakeholder-centric purpose that is driving all of your decision making?

I spoke with a COO the other day, and I asked her how they judge success as an organization. She said, “Double-digit growth year over year.”

She then went on to tell me that in order to hit that this year, they would need to acquire another business.

Nothing wrong with acquisitions. But, I do think that if they have a portfolio of potential acquisitions, they would end up making a different acquisition depending upon their priority:

  • Double-digit growth year over year
  • Creating greater value for their key stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, vendors, shareholders)

Next Steps

If you want to help your executives to lead more from a personal power base, it will require a focus on vertical development and clarification of purpose. I can help you with both.

If you want to discuss this further, reach out to me here: Connect with Ryan.

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