May the force be with you! South Africa, leadership, and the use of power

By Professor Patricia A McLagan

South Africa needs a better way to think and talk about leaders and power.  Blame, avoidance, and even legal action are not working well.  And power is not rational and straightforward.  Few leaders or their followers really understand what it is or are prepared to use it.  This is true for leaders in general, not just in South Africa!  Power is like electricity in the atmosphere.  It can strike like lightening, start a fire, or just hang in the air, unseen and unused.  It is potential energy that can be used for good or for ill – or not at all.

Power relationships are full of surprises.  People who have formal power are sometimes surprised when those around them don’t tell the truth.  Or when followers try to second-guess what the leader wants and begin to focus on winning the leader’s favor rather than achieving the bigger social or institutional purpose. In the meantime, leaders with good intentions begin to believe that they ARE their role.  They hold themselves above the rules, begin to use community resources for their own benefit, and expect to be treated like royalty.

It is human nature.  Almost anyone with power will become corrupt if in a power role long enough.

So what needs to be done?  We need to educate leaders and followers about the psychology of power, how power really operates and where power behavior comes from.  Parents, teachers, and others in authority during childhood influence how power is used later in life.  So do history, culture, training, and peer pressure.   Also, people in power need to be more aware of the potential pitfalls and abuses so they can stop them before it is too late.

More important, we have to stop treating power as a taboo topic.  We often focus on its abuse – the Darth Vader side of power.  But power is, as Yoda in Star Wars reminds us, a positive force when it is with you.  It is a force that can pull people together to get big things accomplished.  It is a force that speeds up the development of those who hold it (think about the strength and wisdom that Luke Skywalker developed because he wrestled with the force).  People in formal power also have a chance to leave big legacies – better societies, institutions, environments, people.

These 3 L’s (leverage today, learning over time, and legacy for the future) provide big rewards for anyone who is willing to focus on them rather than being led astray by the allure of short term personal fame and gain.  This requires leaders to face into the complex human dynamics of power — to grapple with an electric force that can both create and destroy.  When leaders accept this challenge, we should go out of our way to appreciate rather than blame them when they falter.


Professor Pat McLagan (, an American who has worked with government and business organizations globally, lived and worked in South Africa since the early 80s.  She is convinced that we need to change how we view power and how we prepare leaders to use it. Pat is also the author of the book: The Shadow Side of Power.

Her one-day workshop on The Use of Power will be hosted by Knowledge Resources in Johannesburg on 22 August 2014.   Leaders from all levels in government and business will learn about power dynamics in a respectful and exploratory setting.  For more information or to register contact Magdeline Matlatse at 011 706 6009 or or click here now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s