Wear Your Power Lightly

Leading people without the combative attitude can be more effective
February 10, 2020 Updated: February 10, 2020

How do you wear your power?

Stuart Diamond, one of my mentors in negotiation, says leaders should wear their power lightly. I say you should wear your power lightly, but also have your red lines established and defend them. Those red lines being your values, your morals, and your principles. All of those add up to how we wear our power as leaders today, and it’s one of the most challenging mindsets to adopt. 

T.E. Lawrence wore his power lightly, yet he was able to mobilize thousands upon thousands of Badu to overthrow the Ottoman Turks. In the 27 articles he wrote on the subject, he talks a lot about how to wear your power lightly as a leader when you’re mobilizing other people to take action. You don’t have to put your hands on your hips and hit them in the chest cavity every time you want action. In fact, that’s going to be less effective.

In this day and age, a coercive leader is an irrelevant leader. When coercion is your default, your people become apathetic toward your goals and increasingly transactional in their approach to it. We know from Coyle’s book ‘Culture Code’ that in order to create a high performing culture, people need to have a sense of psychological safety. They need to feel like they’re connected to each other because we are social creatures and there needs to be a shared vision that we’re all moving toward together. To operate in a trust-depleted, high-stakes, high-risk environment with a coercive approach is fool’s errand.

My advice to you is to consciously adopt a more strategic mindset that allows you to ‘wear your power lightly’.

Years ago, one of my group commanders, Col. Ed Phillips, knew the name of every soldier in his unit and he was benevolent in how he led. It didn’t mean he wasn’t in command. It didn’t mean that he didn’t ask people to do things that put their lives at risk … but, he didn’t need to flaunt it. He didn’t need to walk around thumping his chest all the time. He wore his power lightly. I remember one conversation where Col. Phillips was talking about a team that was down range in Colombia and they had this notorious team sergeant who was loud and boisterous, and frankly chewed up captains for breakfast, but he was a great team sergeant. He was very effective down range with host nation leaders.

Col. Phillips wanted this team sergeant to do something that would be counter to what their original mission set was, but it was necessary to the strategic evolution of what was going on in that country. He was met with resistance across the board. “Team sergeant’s not going to like that.” But guess what? By wearing his power lightly, Col. Phillips was able to pull it off. That’s just how Ed led. That’s how he did it. He wore his power lightly, and I’ve seen it again and again.

You’ve probably seen it in your life. You’ve probably done it at moments in your life. I’m asking you to do it more. I’m not asking you to take on a koombaya mindset. This isn’t about group hugs and feelings.

You will still have to push. You will still have to reach and strive and grind and do things you don’t want to do. But, the way we can do that effectively is to lead with our power lightly, and build a vision that everybody feels connected to. Everyone should see themselves as the hero in the story. Everyone should stand for the red lines that are established as elements of the culture.

You wear your power lightly by defending these red lines by being surgical and thoughtful in your interactions. Delegate and empower other people to step up and lead. Promote human connection, psychological safety, and enjoy the ride. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Be a little more generous with your scars. In moments where it’s tempting to land on someone, instead share a moment of struggle where you were scuffed up and you learned a lesson that they’re now learning. In a room full of your people, talk last. Let everybody else be heard and then ask permission to jump in.

These are the mindsets you can adopt right now to help you wear your power lightly as a relevant leader.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com