Bill Gore founded W. L. Gore Corporation based on an interesting concept. That concept is that leadership is the ability to get people to move in a consistent direction when you have no power over them. He translated this idea into a powerful mechanism at Gore: associates at Gore have the power to fire their boss.
Now, think about that for a moment. If a group of people at W. L. Gore get together and basically decide that they do not want to follow their nominal boss, that they feel that their boss is not leading them in such a way that they would want to go along with his plans, his directions, his directives, his diktats—or hers—they can simply get together and decide to say, “You are no longer our boss. We fire you as our boss.” Now, they can’t fire them out of the company. But they can basically say, “You no longer have the privilege of being our boss. You no longer have the privilege of being followed by us.”
Now, the beauty of that mechanism is that Bill Gore understood a simple truth: that there is a direct, inverse relationship between the exercise of power and the exercise of leadership. Harry Truman once said that leadership is the ability to get people to do what they might not otherwise do and to like it.
I always think of one of my heroes, Frances Hesselbein, who took over the Girl Scouts and led it from a languishing organization back to a great organization with thousands of volunteers—people over whom she had no real control, no real power. Yet she was able to harness the power of all these volunteer mothers and all these kids involved in the Girl Scouts into a veritable army of people going forward, all clad in green, to help young girls realize their potential as they became women. When I was once talking with Frances, she said, “Well, of course, I didn’t have power, but that doesn’t really matter, because if one can lead, one does not necessarily need power.”
So, as you think about building and leading your own organizations, keep in mind that the exercise of power and the exercise of leadership are very different items, and that many people who look like leaders are, in fact, people who are using power; and if you took their power away, they would not be able to get people to do things. If you took their power away, we would see that they are not leaders but exercisers of power.
Which are you? In a world where people increasingly are volunteers in psychology—increasingly do not need the organizations to which they attach themselves because they have other options—and the best people on the bus, the right people on the bus, always have other options and therefore are, in reality, volunteers because they can go do something else with their talents, with their time, with their energy, you have no choice but to learn how to become not just an exerciser of power but a true leader.