A Physics Lesson for Leaders About the Use of Power

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A Physics Lesson for Leaders About the Use of Power

The first lesson learned by every new leader, one that should be permanently tattooed onto their gray matter, is that by virtue of occupation they have inherited a simple, high school physics problem – There are more of “them” than there are of you. Repeat, there are more of “them” than there are of you. Translation – You are outnumbered, perhaps vastly by the group of people whom you are expected to lead. You shouldn’t let that rattle you, but neither should you forget it.

In Einstein’s theory of Mass-Energy Equivalence, Energy [E] equates to the Mass [M] of an object, times the Speed of Light [C] squared. It rather elegantly ties together the relationship among three seemingly disparate elements. Having slept through high school physics, that’s about the extent of my physics knowledge.

But here’s something I do understand. In human interactions and especially the workplace, the “Energy” of a group of people relates to their Number (mass) times the Leadership that is applied. A group of people, even a tiny group, well led, can accomplish truly amazing things. Conversely, that same group of people led poorly (or not at all) can and will become disengaged, uncooperative, or downright unruly.

Witness recent events in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, where, following the tragic shooting death of a young man, the town’s police attempted to put down a street demonstration with automatic weapons-toting officers wearing gas masks and dressed in battle fatigues.

It didn’t turn out well. Yet, the very next night, an even larger crowd was considerably more peaceful and better behaved as the result of fresh leadership in the person of Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain, Ron Johnson.

What Captain Johnson clearly understands, and what every leader needs to grasp, is the fact that just because you have a big stick doesn’t mean that you’re well advised to wave it around or use it indiscriminately, especially when the power of your personal presence and persuasion will work a lot better. Captain Johnson didn’t just permit another night of demonstrations, he led them, from out front, using his personal presence to set the tone, a more orderly and peaceful tone.

Some lessons for us:

Keep Your Powder Dry – A leader’s position power is a necessary tool, and we mustn’t be afraid to use it, but use it sparingly. There is a finite supply, and once you’ve deployed it, you have nothing left to resort to.

Keep Your Ego in Check – Being in a leadership role is not about you. Rather, it’s about your team and its mission. You needn’t remind people of your position and the fact that you can shut their water off. They get that already, and don’t react well to having it rubbed in their faces.

Envision – Jack Nicklaus, doubtless one of, if not the greatest golfer in history, encourages players to envision their shot before swinging. See the ball arcing past the oak tree, landing ten yards short, and running onto the green, pin high. Leaders should similarly think through and mentally rehearse their next move, especially if that move involves a use of position power.

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