Looking Up at The Illusion of Power

Bottom line: Your coaching clients tend to over-estimate the power of their superiors. Now the details. And why it matters.

Think about the comments your coaching clients make about their bosses or their CEOs. My guess is that the ratio of complaints to positives is high. In other words, your clients are more likely to talk about their bosses’ failures than what their bosses have done well. You are likely to hear comments that begin: “If I were in that job, I would . . .” But if they ever do get in that job, they are likely to bump into constraints on power that are not always evident to others.

We see this most dramatically with the President of the United States (POTUS). Candidates for that office are full of statements that begin, “And when I am President, I promise that I’ll . . .” George Bush (the first) famously said, “No new taxes!” Turns out that he couldn’t keep that promise. He didn’t have the power he thought he’d have, even though he’d been Vice-President for eight years! Even from that vantage point, he couldn’t see all of the constraints on the power of that most powerful office.

What are the constraints on the President’s power? There are many. Here are just three:

  • Shared Power: The Constitution created three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial – so that power would have to be shared among them. POTUS, as executive, is not always free to do anything he wants. In many situations, he needs to win the cooperation of one or both of the other two branches to get things done.
  • Talent: POTUS can’t do everything himself. He needs “people” for that. Therefore, another constraint POTUS faces is the talent level and judgment of the people he hires. Selection is a tricky business, whether in government or in your clients’ organizations. Maybe his people are not as smart as they need to be. Maybe they give POTUS bad advice. If they can’t get things done, it limits his power to get things done.
  • Circumstances: POTUS has a plan. Then 9/11 happens and changes everything. Or there is a pandemic, or an oil crisis. Or Russia invades Ukraine. Suddenly, what looked possible before the event is no longer realistic. Resources that had previously been allocated to keep a campaign promise have to be diverted to deal with the new problem.

CEOs of major organizations are no different. Talk with almost any CEO, except the most narcissistic, and they will tell you that they don’t have anywhere near the power that others imagine that they have.

But their subordinates can’t seem to see it. Why? There are a variety of reasons. And if you, as a coach, understand those reasons, you can help your clients understand them as well. In the process, you will be doing everyone involved a favor.

Let’s look at some of the reasons your coaching clients might overestimate the power their bosses have, why it matters, and what you can do about it.

First, many clients are “nearsighted.” Let’s pick one of your clients and call him Bob. Bob is focused on his own area. He can see what his area needs, and assumes that the CEO, (let’s call him Don) can get it for him. But Don, like all CEOs, has information Bob doesn’t have, because Don is charged with managing multiple areas and priorities, not just Bob’s. Don has to see things from every area’s perspective, and see everyone’s (sometimes competing) needs. In other words, Don has to see the big picture.

If Don doesn’t come through for Bob, Bob may become resentful. As a result, in Bob’s mind, Don and Bob are no longer on the same team. Now it is one against the other, and that hurts the company. (When rowers pull in different directions, it’s hard to get anywhere.) It also hurts Bob, because if his resentment shows, if he comes across as not being a “team player,” as one who won’t “take one for the team,” and as one who can’t see the “big picture,” he will be classified as “junior,” or maybe even as the dreaded “difficult” employee. Bob won’t know why, but he will become invisible. His opinion will not be sought. He will not be considered for promotion.

What might you do to help Bob see things from Don’s point of view?

Instead of commiserating with Bob, what if you said something like, “Bob, the area you manage is critical to your company’s success, of course. But what other departments are important? What would happen if they didn’t get what they need to succeed? Don has to ensure that they have the resources they need too.”

You might also ask, “What do you think are some of the external factors that are constraining Don’s ability to act at times?” Here we might think of market forces, stockholders, boards of directors, other key stakeholders, and legal/ethical issues.

In this conversation, I typically tell my clients that the executives who become stars are those who can see the big picture, just as Don has to do. That often gives them the incentive to take a second look.

A second reason subordinates might over-estimate a leader’s power is that organizations typically dress their leaders up in symbols of power. POTUS’s symbols are pretty impressive (Think “Hail to the Chief,” the White House, Secret Service protection, and Air Force One, for starters.) These symbols can fool people into thinking that the president has more power than he actually does. This happens in corporate life as well. In one Fortune 500 company I know, you do not get emails from the CEO. You get emails  From the Office of the CEO, just in case you didn’t realize how important the CEO is. CEOs have huge offices, usually corner ones with great views. Most don’t go down to the company cafeteria for lunch. They wear power suits. Some have company jets. All of these symbols reinforce the idea that the CEO is all powerful, and that people should do what the CEO says. But, unfortunately, they can also lead people to believe that the CEO can do anything he wants, and can give people whatever they ask for. (Of course the need for such symbols tells you just how shaky the power actually is. You don’t need to “brag” when you have real power.)

When you coach subordinates, in addition to exploring the many limitations the CEO has, it might be useful to encourage your clients to remember to think of their leaders as actual human beings – as people who probably have trouble with their kids, who have indigestion sometimes, etc. Not all-powerful at all.  Visualizing them as people can help subordinates appreciate who their leaders really are – talented people who have been hired to do a job that’s really hard, and who are paid well to do it, but who are not handed all the cards by any means.

Finally, there is what psychotherapists call transference, a universal phenomenon. Transference refers to the way people transfer emotional reactions learned in one context to a new context, which may have similar elements.

People start out young, small, and largely helpless, under the care of very large and seemingly all-powerful authority figures called parents. Lots of feelings get generated in relationships with parents – love, hate, anger, fear, respect, and many others.

When people grow up, and run into other authority figures, such as their bosses, they have to figure out a way to understand them. Transference leads people to use those first relationships with parents as a mental model of how to relate to these new authority figures. To the extent that people are not aware of the source of their thoughts and feelings about authority, they are more likely to stay entrapped in those mental models that came from their earliest days. This can include the unverbalized belief that parents had supreme power. A client who is a parent today should recognize that early belief as misleading, but deep-seated assumptions can be hard to dispel.

As a coach, it might be useful to ask your clients about their early relationships with their parents. Then ask them if they see any parallels in the way they perceive and interact with their current bosses or CEOs. When people can “connect the dots,” they can often see their bosses more accurately for who they are, not for who they imagine them to be.

If you can help your clients work through their faulty perceptions, as well as helping them to begin to see the bigger picture, they will be likely to have much more empathic and reality-based relationships with their bosses. They will be much more likely to be able to sense when and how to ask for what they need, and therefore more likely to get it, and far more likely to be promoted. And their bosses will love having subordinates who have at least some understanding of their world.

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