A while back, I heard a talk by a person who had been a personal adviser to one of our country’s presidents.  He talked about going to the Oval Office – commonly referred to as the most powerful office in the world – and being struck by how limited a president’s power really is.  Without Congress, the judiciary, his cabinet, and his political allies, this politician’s power looked a lot smaller than we might think.

A lot of people think that senior leaders – by definition – have the most power in an organization.  In fact, if you watch the behavior of many people in any organization, you can see that they think that senior leaders have virtually infinite power. (Yes, a few of these senior leaders suffer this delusion too, but hey, that’s a topic for a future post.)

The fact is, nothing is further from the truth.  Everyone lives in an influence box with limits on what they can and can’t do.  It’s just that the limits aren’t always terribly clear… that is, until you find one!  You thought you could make a certain decision or go in a certain direction or open up a certain line of questioning in your organization – and then, bang! – you bump into the edge of your box. A boss or board member or colleague says, “Whoa! What are you doing? That’s not going to happen…”

Of course, this happens most to leaders who have joined a new company or have been promoted into new roles.  But it can happen to anyone. (While frustrating, I’d argue it’s often a good thing because it shows that a leader is taking initiative and pushing boundaries.)

The natural questions for any leader are simply:

  • How big is my box – really? Where are the specific limits today? Why?
  • How can I enlarge my box so that I can get more good stuff done for my customers and colleagues?
  • How do I focus my energy – and the energy of my organization – on the things that are a) in our box or b) will enlarge our box rather than wasting energy on stuff outside our box?
How would you answer those questions?