How a Leader Ascends to Power

19 May 2009 Gregory Hartley

Gregory Hartley and Maryann Karinch, authors of Get People to Do What You Want, explain to CEO the different paths leaders can take to power.

All groups have a leader, whether that person is sanctioned by a formal process or simply emerges to take on a position of authority. The simplest display of leadership is the person who emerges in response to a power vacuum, whether or not the vacuum is immediately evident. He or she may seize power or simply respond to cries for help. There is no deliberate process and there are no formal trappings of authority.

A whimsical example is the guy who organises the lottery syndicate at the office. A more practical example is the person who speaks up for his co-workers in front of the boss.

I have been in many work environments where it was clear that the man with the title was not the man with the power. If you have someone in the workplace who stands out as an informal leader, the boss knows that deference is in order.

"Through charisma and good people skills, the natural leader can become the obvious selection for the formal leader."

The other type of leader has been formally appointed, or imposed. This leader has been officially selected to fill a position. I describe this leader as imposed because, in most cases, not everyone has a say in who gets the role. When the board of directors hires your boss, you probably have little input in the decision. His leadership is imposed and, although you can opt to leave, that is about as much power as you can exercise.

Furthermore, a leader who forcefully reminds people of the basis of their leadership and status does not mean they are able to accomplish anything. When I was a young soldier, my first job was as a finance clerk, a position I was not suited for at all. My boss was a 22-year-old lieutenant who had a horrible management style. He was put in power because the establishment ordained him, not because he had any competence in the areas of people management or finance. Because he was in charge, he thought he had power. He would walk around the office and watch us work. He never asked for, or earned, authority from the people he was managing.

You might conclude that, because this was the military, a certain amount of deference had to be given to a senior rank. This is correct, but you can provide formal deference to a formal leader and it rings hollow. The lieutenant soon realised he could make people do what he said, but never what he wanted. He asked for a transfer. The army learned from this, and he was replaced with a seasoned sergeant who had a similar background as the people in the office. He earned cooperation and respect by demonstrating this understanding. When being introduced he said "Give me permission to help you," and that gave people in the office the opening they needed to find reasons to respect him.

The power of personality

Years later, I encountered a management situation in which the department head was despised by eight of her employees, got along marginally with one, and was friends with another. The CEO would not get rid of her, however, because she had built strong relationships with some powerful clients. The one person with whom she got along marginally well took charge as the informal leader, serving as a go-between for the boss and employees. In this way, she kept the department relatively intact, with the loss of one staff member in two years. After the boss left of her own accord, the go-between assumed leadership of the department.

It could be argued that freely-elected politicians reflect the issues associated with formal leaders. The prime minister is imposed on many who do not support him. In some ways, members of parliament serve the same function as the woman who acted as the go-between in her department—shuttling demands between their constituents who do not like the current government, and the formal leadership.

Through charisma and good people skills, the natural leader can become the obvious selection for the formal leader. Similar to the informal leader who replaced the department manager, sometimes stepping up leads to formal authority.

Throughout history, there are also clear examples of this. Few people can argue with the persuasive power that Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair held. These men captured the public’s attention through two very different styles, but for the same reason: personality. Both had their trials with political opponents and their followers, but both survived and were re-elected by electoral majority, and continued to flourish in arguably the most difficult jobs in the world.

People in everyday life use this same skill set. Whether imposed or informal leaders, many people will create a cult of personality and use the seemingly inconspicuous opportunity as a means to gain increasing levels of authority over others. There is an adage that few people ever surrender power, so be careful to whom you surrender yours.

Get People to Do What You Want (published by Crimson Publishing) is available to buy at £9.99 from