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A transactional approach to power

Taking a transactional approach to power might sound innately bad, but not when you take this reframing of power seriously.

Written by: Ted Kinni (Are you the author?)

Transactional has become something of a dirty word in the business world. It suggests a short-term, one-off mindset and a commoditized approach to value. Nobody wants transactional relationships with employees, suppliers, or customers. But when it comes to exercising power, understanding power as a transaction may be a leader’s best bet.

hat’s because power is something leaders are commonly thought to possess, either by force of personality or by dint of positional authority. The mistaken idea that you are inherently powerful can be extraordinarily seductive—and comes with a variety of leadership pitfalls. Hubris (an exaggerated sense of self-confidence) is one of them. Arrogance (the belief that you are smarter than everyone else) is another. Worst of all is omnipotence—the conviction that you are above the rules. From there, it’s only a short hop to becoming living proof of Lord Acton’s famous line, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There are lots of worthy prescriptions for avoiding the pitfalls of power, including servant, humble, and empathic leadership. But they depend on a level of self-awareness and mindfulness that can be difficult to muster on a day-to-day basis. If you struggle with the siren call of power, it might be easier to rethink your view of power than to remake yourself.

Organizational behavior professors Julie Battilana of Harvard Business School and Tiziana Casciaro of the Rotman School of Management offer leaders (and followers) such a reframing in their new book, Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business. They do it by tapping power dependence theory, a branch of social exchange theory that was developed starting in the 1960s by Richard Emerson, then a sociologist at the University of Cincinnati.

Like Emerson, Battilana and Casciaro peg power to resources, not people.

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