Flatten your power gradient with Host Leadership

I was delighted to meet Turn The Ship Around author L. David Marquet last week in Edinburgh.  David was in town to speak about his new book Leadership Is Language: The hidden power of what you say and what you don’t (an excellent read, by the way), in which he goes into detail about the concept of ‘power gradient’

Power gradient, as David writes, is how much more authority or power does a person higher in the hierarchy feel like they have compared to someone lower in the hierarchy. A steep power gradient is where the senior person ‘bosses’ folk around, speaks a lot, marks themselves as different, doesn’t listen much, and encourages people to do what they are told and shut up.  A flatter power gradient, by contrast, has the senior encouraging others to speak up, listening more, reducing the differences and engaging with their people.  Steep power gradients are vestiges of the Industrial Age where thinking was separated from doing, and cultures of control and comply ruled the day.

There are many examples in Marquet’s book of how steep power gradients are suboptimal, ineffective and even downright dangerous in today’s world.  Some of these are in operational settings such as airplane cockpits or ships bridges.  Others (close to home here!) are about corporate settings – Marquet writes entertainingly about Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin, under whose rule the Royal Bank of Scotland collapsed – huge offices, thicker carpets, security guards preventing access to the Executive Suite (also known as the ‘Torture Chamber’… The UK Government bailed the bank out to the tune of £45bn, and Goodwin (as I have discussed here) infuriated all concerned by ignoring the norms of host/guest relations and keeping his huge payoff and pension.

Marquet is quite clear that he is not advocating zero power gradient – that would lead to confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty about responsibilities.  However, flattening the power gradient is a key piece of engaging your people and building shared commitment. It’s up to the senior person /leader to do this, as it’s very difficult for your team to initiate such moves (particularly if you’re not looking!).

One effect of embracing a Host Leadership style is that power gradients are flatter. Whereas the hero boss is looking for one-way communication (“Do this! Yes, sir.”), a host leader is seeking to look after their team as well as taking responsibility for them.  Three very practical ways you can make flatter power gradients are:

  • Step back and invite contributions from your team members. In meetings, in briefings, in one-on-one chats, take time to be quiet and let them say what’s important.
  • Ask what they need – to do their jobs, to improve their work, to connect with customers and colleagues better.  (You might not like the answers – but at least everyone will be better informed.)
  • Co-participate! Take time at the sharp end occasionally – you’ll see how things are, how it’s working and what are the challenges faced by your people from day to day. 

What other ways are there you can flatten the power gradient?

Dr Mark McKergow is the co-author of Host: Six New Roles Of Engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements (Solutions Books, 2014).  He speaks, writes and teaches about post-heroic leadership development and solution-focused organisational change. http://hostleadership.com  

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