Leading with Power as Chief of Staff

Jan 30, 2020 (Adapted from my newsletter, The Briefing. Originally published Nov. 18, 2019.)


If we can all agree that the chief of staff role depends much on influence, collaboration, and facilitative leadership, is it ever okay to use coercive tactics? To withhold a budget approval? To stop someone’s project funding mid-stream? To fire people? To play “bad cop” to your exec’s “good cop?” To say “No” to someone who wants to meet with your boss? To appoint someone else to head that tiger team instead of the one who thought he or she was deserving? If so, when? Is power, especially coercive power, a dirty word or an essential tool for chiefs of staff and the execs we support? If the last couple issues of The Briefing have been about strategic planning, the next couple are about power. And power, while being an ongoing consideration for chiefs of staff, might also come in handy during all those discussions about operating plans, budgets, and tradeoffs that are part of your strategic planning process before you kick off next year.

How do you feel when I mention the tactics and behaviors I just did? What’s your off-the-cuff, emotional reaction?

I have posed this question to chiefs of staff in a few different forums. While responses were nuanced, they ranged between:

  • “Usually doesn’t feel good” and “Fear – especially of damage to relationships, my strongest currency” (negative responses)
  • “Depends on the why – why is this happening, and why me/why am I the one applying the power versus my exec?” (neutral, wait-and-see responses)
  • “They can feel like breakthrough if they achieve results” (positive responses)

Interestingly, the negatives outweighed both positives and neutrals about 2-1. Far from a statistically valid, scientific study, but a starting point for a conversation. Interestingly, the 2-1 ratio is somewhat consistent with Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s great, statistically-valid research and thoughts about people’s ambivalence toward power in his book, Managing with Power. Suffice it to say, if you have a negative reaction toward power, and especially coercive tactics, you’re not alone.

A follow up question, then, is why do you have your off-the-cuff reaction? What consequences – positive or negative – have you seen from power – perhaps especially coercive power – being wielded?

We each have those reactions, and they might be very different from the next person’s. We each bring a set of cultural, family-of-origin, and other assumptions to our executive table, largely based on our experience. Some of us have seen terrible abuses of power and tend to be quite skeptical toward it. Others have seen power bring order to otherwise chaotic situations and gravitate toward it. Despite our best efforts at being objective, neutral observers at the table, we’re not. That’s why it’s important to bring other perspectives to the table and inform our thinking and behaviors.To lead intentionally, you must wrestle with, and ground yourself in, your answers to questions like these.

Spoiler alert: I maintain that as chief of staff, your understanding of and effective wielding of power (and your executive’s power by proxy), even if they make you uncomfortable, are important tools for achieving the outcomes you and your exec are looking for. The key here is the word effectively. Effectively wielding power means:

  • not using raw power in every situation.
  • not starting with it, even in some situations where it might be required.
  • not abusing it or using it disproportionately to what is required in the situation.

In our Chief of Staff Mastermind Cohort, among many other topics, we get to explore:

  • Different definitions of power, authority, and influence.
  • Their convergence and divergence.
  • How they relate to our understandings of leadership.
  • What research says about what is actually effective in organizations vs what we perceive is effective.
  • Experiments that participants can apply back at work, glean insights from, and use to adapt their approach over time.

In some cases, participants find they need to more effectively wield power to prevent others running roughshod over their boundaries. In other cases, we find participants who are very well versed in power stepping back to rely more on persuasion and softer influence tactics in some situations. In all cases, learning happens.

What’s holding you back from leading with power? Find a 15 or 30 minute slot on my calendar and let’s talk, or consider joining a future Chief of Staff Mastermind Cohort, a year-long learning experience that combines the power of chief of staff-specific training, group and 1:1 coaching, and peer advisory.

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