Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 23, 2019
In response to the current political maelstrom, I have begun to noodle on the power of the “bully pulpit,” and if you have it, when to use it and in what ways.
President Theodore Roosevelt first coined the phrase “bully pulpit.” As the “leader of the free world” in a position of power, he had the standing, the opportunity and the obligation to speak out on issues, to be listened to and to advocate for his agenda.
But as the lowly CEO, you have perceived power rather than absolute power. If you mistakenly think that you are “on the presidential podium” (Paul Simon), when in fact you are only in front of a class of MBA students or your team at the Monday management meeting, then you need to carefully consider the consequences of that confusion.
“Power interrupts, and absolute power interrupts absolutely,” says Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School. This is the lesson that Gino discovered when she invited high-powered guest speakers to talk to her class. Before their speech, each famous, powerful business leader told her that they wanted to learn from the students, as much as speaking to them, that they wanted to “encourage the students to ask questions and make comments.” In reality, she found that they did the exact opposite. They dominated the time, talked too long, left no time for questions and generally used the speech to tell the audience how smart they were. Wow.
We have all seen this behavior. You go to the event and after some initial blah blah, the main speaker gets up to talk and as he steps up to the microphone, it is as if some ether floats down from the rafters and wraps the guy in a cocoon, in which time and space stand still — and the audience is forced to sit there and take it for a longer time than they bargained for. Gino decided to study this effect, and sure enough, she finds “that a high-powered boss can lead a team into poor performance.” The dark sentence here is that the speaker is “not aware of the effect of his actions.” In other words, it is not intentional, it is simply the default behavior if you are used to being the smartest person in the room.
In fairness to Gino, she readily admits, “As professors, we do this, too.” After all, the professor has the right answer, so why not just put it out there and get on down the road. I find this puzzle fascinating. Does a dominating leader stifle creative ideas that might otherwise emerge from group discussions and in effect make the team less productive? If that is the case, then perhaps running the Monday management meeting should be tilted a bit more toward the Socratic method (a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue, designed to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions).
The issue of power and authority and how to use it is a complex one. What Gino finds, not surprisingly, is that when the leader with the actual power (like a symphony conductor) steps back and makes room for the orchestra to play the music, the result is more successful. “Strong leaders can improve team performance, but only when they exhibit humility and awareness of their relative power.”
But the problem is that leaders often are not aware of the effect of their actions. I have called this out before, what is called EQ (emotional quotient), being aware of the world around you and the subtle indications of others. The leader gets on a roll and becomes oblivious to the signals.
When this happens, the rest of the team needs to create an intervention to remind the boss at the head of the room to take a breath and make room for some input from others. This is not so easy. If you are the moderator on a panel, you just can’t stand up and turn off the guy’s microphone. Good group decision-making needs oxygen, and if the boss sucks it out of the room, some idea or someone is going to be asphyxiated.
Knowing when to release the death grip on the microphone and let the audience sing along in its own key is a learned skill.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected]
Rule No. 628
“Leave ’em laughing”
— Milton Berle