Simon Fowler's Blog

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?

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4 Responses to “rLiving Day 13: My CEO and his CEO (Power)”

  1. christian said

    Great post, Simon. I think the problem of equating power with value is one of the worst forms of blindness, and a huge hinderance to human thriving. A group of us have(US)/has(UK) been reading/discussing “The Spirit Level” – which finds statistically that inequality is highly correlated with all kinds of societal ills. One of the subtler points we discussed is the fact that value judgments associated with inequality (you have more money [financial power] than i do, and are therefore more valuable – or even more surprisingly that i have more money than you do and therefore feel more valuable, but feel guilty about it on some level) may be a very key part of this.

    I too have been fortunate to work mainly for bosses who exerted significant power without so much as a hint that their power translated into personal value, and i think that our shared enterprises were far more successful as a result.

    • Simon said

      Thanks Christian.

      This speaks to my earlier post about the rich not knowing the poor (Day 3). The human-relational distance between them leaves a mediated material/monetary relationship. If value is relational – it’s what you are to me, what you mean to me – then a solely monetary relationship, even in perception, confers a value measured, literally, in dollars!

      By coincidence, there was an HBR article today by William C. Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company. The title as “MIX It Up! Why Freedom Is a Bigger Game than Power”. http://blogs.hbr.org/taylor/2010/05/mix_it_up_why_freedom_is_a_big.html And it totally illustrates the point we’re making.

      First the bogeymen, “them”, the annual “Fortune 500” list: “it is an issue that revels in power — who’s gaining it, who’s losing it, who’s using it to make money or lose money. … These folks all come off as a little, well, overrated. … Maybe that’s because power itself is overrated.”

      Then the righteous alternative, “us”, who will have nothing to do with power: “Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash. … For leaders, the most important question today is not How many people or departments or business units do you control? It is How much energy and participation have you unleashed?”

      And how are they going to unleash energy? The Management Innovation eXchange, to “help reinvent the work of management itself … ‘the technology of human accomplishment.’ … The defining challenges for management going forward, it argues, are to “mend the soul of business; unleash human capabilities; foster strategic renewal; distribute power; reshape managerial minds; and seek balance and harmony.””

      Reinvent, mend, unleash, foster, distribute, reshape. They’re going to do all that without power? What if I don’t want to be mended? Leave me alone!

      This has taken a sarcastic tone when in fact I’m all for the MIX idea. But it’s a perfect illustration of a blindness to their own power and their desire to exercise it. Ironically, MIX also looks like the wonderful illustration of people using their power “for” good, “for” others. They could simply have said, “it’s not just about money and winning, but about human thriving, here’s how we going to do it”.

      • christian said

        I agree. And i think it is helpful to explicitly expand the material/monetary mediation between people to include all forms of symbolic value/capital including economic (physical and monetary), social (trust, network, institutional affiliation), cultural (skills to work within the culture, access to artifacts of culture, legitimacy within the culture), and symbolic (honor, prestige, recognition).

        Anecdotally, i’ve noticed that within more transitory groups of people, there appears to be a heavier reliance on these symbolic mechanisms as a way of mediating relationships. For example, i’ve found people far more likely, in certain places in Boston, to introduce a friend as “This is Joe, he is a President of Acme and a Harvard grad.” Now this in and of itself is not destructive, but when people in various contexts begin to value or devalue Joe based on his various forms of accumulated capital it is. Perhaps more destructive (or destructive on different levels, i suppose), though, is when accumulated professional capital is used in a social setting in a way that the “This is Joe, he is a President of Acme and a Harvard grad.” introduction raises Joe’s status not only in a business symposium, but also at a birthday party or a church function.

        When this begins to happen, it distances people from one another by creating false exclusionary mediations which are, and enable forms of what Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence.”

  2. […] by Simon on May 24, 2010 Money, like power, gets a bad rap. It’s seen as so purely evil that we just cripple ourselves with guilt about […]

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