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How do great leaders derive their power?

By Dr Dominik Heil

How do great leaders derive their power?

There are many different forms of leadership power, but what distinguishes great leaders from average managers?

The answer is that great leaders see things differently to everyone else.

Great leaders hold a richer insight into the internal and external environments in which their organisation operates and as a result they can spot the opportunities others miss. For example, take Steve Jobs and his well-publicised grasp of the market and what people wanted from their mobile devices. This insight let him mould Apple’s employees so they could be creative, grasp opportunities and realise significant benefits.

Here are the three ways great leaders see things differently and from which they derive their leadership power:

1. They see their organisation differently 

Successful leaders have a deep understanding how set-ups and repetitive behaviours fundamentally create the organisational reality within which people think and act and which on the one side opens up certain possibilities for actions and results and on the other side limits them. This enables them to be more productive, but in a different, non-clichéd way. IBM was in trouble when Lou Gerstner arrived as Chairman and CEO, but he saw the potential of IBM and was able to overcome the hurdles to turn IBMs fortunes around.  


2. They see people differently

Highly effective leaders appreciate that people have the potential for ever expanding their ability to understand, think and act, and they understand that power that sits within their people’s discretion - if it is cultivated and managed positively. They know that people are the core of any organisation and are the real drivers of change and value which means that they are better able to engage and inspire people. Like Anne Mulcahy when she took over Xerox Corp in 2001. She took the lead during a time of great uncertainty when the organisation was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Mulcahy believes that communication was the single most important aspect in turning the organisation around, she invested time to personally meet with every one of her leaders. Engaging with them, listening to their perspectives and outlining her vision of what needed to be done helped make it their vision too.


3. They see themselves differently

There are certain characteristics every good leader demonstrates: they are humble when others show hubris, they are resolute when others are uncertain, they are brave and free when others are fearful and constrained. In this way they inspire action, because great leaders know that they can only orchestrate, it is others that will make things happen. This makes them powerful leaders as they empower people without letting their ego get in the way. Take Cranfield School of Management alumni and Dragon’s Den star Sarah Willingham, she can spot the potential in a business idea, underpin it with a robust business model, structure and organisation, and then inspire those involved to rapidly make it a winning enterprise.


One of the toughest challenges in organisations in today’s uncertain post-Brexit world is creating leaders who possess the attributes outlined above and who can be truly visionary and consequential, despite the uncertain business environment.


Great leaders are those who see also the possible when others only see limitations.


Organisations that want to be successful need leaders who understand the nature of opportunities that arise in their daily management practice and are able to take advantage of these opportunities. That’s what makes a great leader.

I’ve wrestled with the challenge of how to develop people as leaders, and as a result it has led to the innovative development process that underpins the Praxis Centre for Leadership Development’s High Performance Leadership programme. This programme is for senior managers and gives participants new insight on what it means to lead an organisation and the people within it.

Whatever industry or type of organisation you work in, you can become a highly effective and powerful leader by learning to see your people, your organisation and yourself differently.

Find out more


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