rLiving Day 13: My CEO and his CEO (Power)
Posted by Simon on May 12, 2010
We had a visit from my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, the top CEO, ‘Patrick’ today. He’s visited a number of times from his usual office in London. Every year he visits all 40 or so companies that the company owns to ‘meet the people’. I welcome his visits, and I appreciate his northern (England) charm, natural good humor and candor. He’s also been a good communicator over email through some tough times in the last couple of years. And most importantly he’s shown enormous trust in ‘Ethan’, our CEO.
Thankfully, Patrick holds a lot more power than I do. So do the other four people between me and him. And they’re welcome to it.
Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.
Power gets such a bad wrap these days. Power and control are spoken of as though they’re inherently evil. Except when it’s for us, our empowerment and autonomy. Then it’s absolutely glorious! We’re also a little hypocritical when we scream at regulators or companies or the rich for not doing stuff. “Doing stuff” presumes power to do.
Perhaps we just need a little more nuance in our talk of power. Power “for” maybe a way to talk about it. But even “power over” isn’t wholly wrong either. A voluntary, even if necessary, human organization of which I’m part has a purpose and a life bigger than my own, rightly or wrongly. So Ethan had the power – as much as I know he wished he didn’t have to exercise it – to eliminate a significant number of roles in the last 18 mths. There was no agreement by which anyone said, “I exercise my equal power to agree to lose my job!”. Ethan exercised power over us all because his power was “for” the organization as a whole. He also did it with grace and kindness because he had power “for” the individuals going and staying.
I’m not sure it’s possible, or even desirable, to avoid relations of power asymmetry. Knowing people like Ethan and Patrick are at the helm gives me great assurance and an ability just to get on with my job. Knowing my wife is wiser than me, that my daughter is weaker than me, that my friend is stronger than me and that my neighbor needs tech advice from me – these just create the web of rich interdependencies and trust that make good relationships what they are.
Clearly what needs to be avoided, among other things, is the misuse of power and equating power with value or status.
In my experience, Patrick, Ethan, and all the other bosses between me and them avoid those mistakes. The power they have “over” is exercised in such a way that feels genuinely “for”, me and for the organization. Within that, and the other constraints of working for a for-profit institution, I feel autonomous, empowered and of equal value with them all.
What experiences of healthy relationships within great power asymmetry do you have?