The Administrative Power Grab

Loaded barbells can be put to abusive ends, but school leaders can find proper applications of their muscle growth and development by Richard D. Sorenson

If you have ever done a set of standing biceps curls, you know what an irritating burn it can create in your arms. Moving a loaded barbell though a range of motions for several repetitions can do one of two things: (1) if appropriately used, the power curls can serve as the impetus for muscle growth and development, or (2) if inappropriately applied, the power curls can wear and tear the muscles, creating a constant tension.

Either approach is a power move, and taking this analogy from the gym floor to the school leader’s door is relatable to administrative power. However, if misunderstood, inappropriately used or coercively applied, it can create constant tension throughout a learning community.

Power for some school leaders can be an aphrodisiac that can be applied negatively, especially when a leader has a devastating instinct for the weaknesses of others. A leader’s intellect and heart closes shop and ceases to function when drunk on power. The leader believes he or she is invincible. Recall the words of Stephen Vincent Benét: “We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom!”

Yet power and wisdom are mutually exclusive. One can cancel out the other completely if the school leader fails to grasp how the complex web of power and wisdom can positively serve as a pathway to professional growth and development.

Gary Yukl, director of the organizational studies doctoral program at State University of New York at Albany, in his 2001 classic Leadership in Organizations, argues that while the essence of leadership is influence and power over followers, these two terms can have multiple meanings, pro and con.

Gym Concepts
Returning to our muscle-building analogy, consider how a school leader, much like a body builder, can positively use power as it relates to power gym concepts, such as continuous tension, peak contraction, holistic training, partial reps, power boosters, the complete workout, cooling down and fit as a fiddle, to create a learning environment that benefits all participants.

• Continuous Tension. The school leader, similar to the body builder, must stay in control of both the positive and negative aspects of each power repetition (those daily interactions, associations and decisions), thus avoiding a continuous tension that can develop among subordinates who are constantly looking for subtle clues and even overt gestures of domineering power emitting from a leader.

When coercive power is applied through negative sanctions, such as threats of formal or informal punishment or temperamental outbursts, a dysfunctional style of leadership emerges. When this occurs, followers can develop serious levels of indifference, if not exhibitions of antagonism and disloyalty.

Peak Contraction. The body builder during power reps will squeeze the contracted muscles to intensify the effort and maximize the pump, thus obtaining the desired effect. When an administrator incorporates such a power move by shoving his or her weight around, it’s a sign the leader is more interested in personal goals than the wants and needs of subordinates.

Peter Northouse, a professor of communication at Western Michigan University, in his 2004 work Leadership: Theory and Practice, asserts the use of coercive power runs counter to working with followers who strongly aspire to achieve common goals. When individuals comply with the dictates of a leader out of fear of reprisal (e.g., undesirable work assignments, poor performance ratings, unfair duty schedules), little is gained and much is lost from an organizational perspective.

• Holistic Training. A school leader, like the body builder, can use numerous training techniques to stimulate maximum growth and development. The concept of power is legitimately related to leadership as power provides the capacity to influence others. Individuals such as ministers, doctors, coaches and even teachers are leaders who use position power to positively influence others. School leaders, because of their legitimate title and position, need training to better understand how to appropriately wield this power.

Consider the exercise of coercive power — the teachers who obey a principal or the principal who obeys a superintendent through the fear of retaliation. Coercive power is never without the potential to alienate subordinates. To avoid using coercive power in the workplace, the school leader must stay calm, use measured approaches, maintain credibility and recognize, through training, that coercion isolates people.

On the other hand, positive tactics of influence will motivate subordinates. Some of the best professional development training, as related to administrative power, is based on the concept of empowerment — leaders sharing power by helping subordinates use team power constructively to better the organization.

Professional development opportunities reveal how leaders can gain and use power as a result of their followers finding them to be competent, considerate, fair, honest and even good role models. Professional development can transform the coercive school administrator into a leader who possesses and exhibits more positive forms of power and influence, thus ultimately benefiting the entire learning community.

• Partial Reps. The school leader who simply goes through the motion of doing partial reps (limited professional development) can only expect to be recognized as a lightweight. Applying full reps, or providing the necessary training, can result in biceps (team members) feeling great, further enhancing a leader’s ability to handle more volume (issues and problems).

How often have we noticed the educational leader who leads a team of associates to a regional training session only to leave the meeting at the first available opportunity?

This same leader can be found at other professional development sessions out in the foyer visiting with a professional acquaintance or down the hall at the coffee machine chatting with a colleague from a former school district or even later in the day retreating from the training session to a convenient alcove to answer a prearranged cell phone call from the office secretary. Such games ignore the obvious — the lead learner should be leading the learning.

Power Boosters. The real lead learner enjoys the optimal combination of vigorous training and in-depth learning in collaboration with organizational improvement when seeking continuous opportunities for professional growth and development. The key dimensions to better results are impeded in seven transformational factors, as follows.

Inquire: Look into, analyze and determine the underlying causes of organizational deficiencies from the perspective of fixing a wrong, not blaming a person.
Investigate: Seek available training and professional development options that provide for a variety of essential skills techniques and methods that will be the basis for overall school improvement.

Initiate: Successful planning processes resulting from professional development opportunities provide school leaders with positive degrees of latitude to instigate change and further serve as the basis for instructing all parties in appropriate procedures for correcting identifiable deficiencies.

Inspect: Any analysis, planning, training and implementation of change without vital inspection stages and monitoring stations are pointless ventures, like spitting into the wind. From an educational and leadership perspective, assessment is designed to bring about improvement by focusing on specified goals and objectives.

Inject: Introduce, infuse and instill leading and learning processes with evaluative methods, continuously testing and assessing organizational progress in an effort to provide continuous feedback and focused results.

Intensify: Create opportunities for continuous improvement by augmenting, fostering and even increasing professional development opportunities.

Inspire: Power without inspiration brings little in the form of individual recognition and team satisfaction. Any inspirational appeal, when made in coordination with an organizational mandate, can arouse team enthusiasm in favor of the proposition and is thus much more of a positive influential tactic than any power-heavy persuasive maneuver. The school leader who shows respect, demonstrates integrity and provides proper guidance serves as a positive source of organizational inspiration.

The Complete Workout. Effective school leaders use coercive power minimally. They realize it is the complete opposite of reward, referent, legitimate and expert power. Coercive power is the potential to influence others through the administration of negative sanctions.

Consider the school district administrator who issues a directive in memorandum form to a subordinate, detailing specified changes that must occur in the employee’s performance. If the directive is not complied with, the employee risks termination for insubordination. While such a power move threatens to change the attitude and behavior of the employee, it is a negative source of power applied in a most punishing manner.

On the other hand, other sources of power such as reward (influence through recognition, award or praise), referent (admiration of a role model — “we do things for her/him that we wouldn’t do for anyone else”), legitimate (authority based on an individual’s organizational role) and expert (the old saying, “knowledge is power”) create a working and learning environment where the school leader may be able to achieve the same results in a more positive manner.

Cooling Down. The bottom line to creating a pathway to professional growth and development is for school leaders to enhance their ability to influence others. Avoid the overt need for coercive power. Instead, focus on developing interpersonal relationships with subordinates. Such tactics include rational persuasion, personal appeals, consultation and collaboration. Consider a technique often incorporated by superintendents to shake up a school district by rotating school principals.

This particular leadership method typically creates anxiety and even hostility among principals and teachers. Many superintendents draw upon their legitimate and coercive bases of power to bring about the change of administrative personnel in schools with the notion that such a modification will serve to ultimately increase student achievement. More times than not, this tactic only serves to dampen campus morale, thus defeating the primary purpose intended.

An alternative to the power-surge method would be to establish a principals’ group that would examine the job rotation concept and then recommend specific plans for implementation. Topics such as the rotation timetable, selection of school assignments and communication of intentions could be addressed by the principals’ group in the recommendations to the superintendent. Such an approach by the superintendent might not only solve the dilemma at hand but also improve leader-subordinate relations.

Fit as a Fiddle
While power is an extremely important concept in the realm of school leadership, having power is relatively meaningless unless the leader has a clear understanding of how to exercise it. The use of power occurs primarily when a leader perceives he or she has exhausted all possibilities. Typically the leader has not and should therefore consider other options gained through professional development.

Returning to the body-building metaphor, the effective school leader must use the proper techniques to muscle up an organization. Such techniques include (1) avoiding continuous tension in the workplace by being in control of both the positive and negative aspects of power; (2) recognizing that peak contractions (power moves) can force or manipulate subordinates into intensifying their objections, creating a sense of alienation, resentment and hostility; (3) seeking holistic training opportunities to better stimulate organizational growth and development; (4) avoiding partial reps (limited professional development) in favor of power boosters (vigorous training and in-depth learning); (5) enjoying the complete workout that incorporates other sources of power (reward, referent, legitimate and expert); and (6) incorporating influence tactics that pump up subordinates and cool down a hostile work environment, thus making the leader and the organization fit as a fiddle.

Richard Sorenson is an assistant professor of educational leadership and foundations at the University of Texas at El Paso, COE Room 510A, 500 W. University Ave., El Paso, TX 79968. E-mail: rsorenson@utep.edu. He is co-author of the forthcoming The Principal’s Guide to Managing School Personnel (Corwin Press).



Richard Sorenson suggests the following books, which relate to his article:

Leadership: Theory and Practice by P.G. Northouse, 2004, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Executive Leadership for Effective Administration by M.S. Norton, 2005, Pearson Education, Boston.

The Principal’s Guide to School Budgeting by R.D. Sorenson and L.M. Goldsmith, 2006, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

• Leadership in Organizations by G.A. Yukl, 2001, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.