Power 101: The Class You Won't Get in B-School

While I was having lunch with a Stanford MBA student last year, he thanked me for my class on power in organizations. He was afraid he was losing his competitive edge, honed as an undergrad at Harvard in an intellectually aggressive environment in which people sought to outshine each other. At about the same time, a Fortune 500 chief executive remarked to me that it must be more difficult now to teach about power, given the current espoused ethos of flat organizations and Facebook "friends."

None of this should come as a huge surprise. Most business schools emphasize teamwork and collaboration in their organizational cultures and feature a lot of group work. In such business schools as Stanford (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile), student organizational offices have co-occupants.In many MBA programs, grades are deemphasized and not released by the school to employers. In short, overtly competitive behavior is counter-normative in courses where leaders are "coaches" and students come together to share their feelings.

And it's not just in business schools that standing out and winning seem frowned upon. Another student told me she had quit competitive swimming and switched to water polo because in swim meets, everyone got a ribbon. An article in The New York Times noted the practice in many high schools of dispensing with having a single valedictorian. Some schools switched to multiple valedictorians, while others did away with the honor altogether.

Although power has always been "the organization's last dirty secret," to use Rosabeth Kanter's apt phrase, the topic seems particularly misunderstood today. But power is ever more crucial in business school curricula.

Not Really Flat

First, our students are starting their careers in a job market where organizations claim to be flat but actually aren't. So new graduates need to be able to distinguish rhetoric from reality and have the capability to influence others in ostensibly equal power positions. Managing inevitably entails getting things done with and through others. This means that not only enhanced social skills and emotional intelligence but also power and influence skills are essential for success.

Second, we have all observed the new millennial generation, highly collaborative workers who are uneasy with individuation. What will leadership look like in organizations if these future leaders are not trained in understanding power dynamics, competition, and how to navigate in the real world?

Stanford's leadership curriculum attempts to address these issues. We not only emphasize cooperation but also have courses that openly discuss power. It is essential for students to learn about power while in school, where it is safer and failure has smaller consequences, rather than discover some unpleasant facts of organizational life on their first jobs, where the learning can be more painful.

Importance of Resilience

Katia Verresen, an experienced executive coach who has worked with many senior-level executives and numerous early career MBAs at some of the most iconic Silicon Valley companies, argues that B-schools that encourage their students to learn about and familiarize themselves with power benefit their students most. Eschewing and shying away from power creates many problems. The most important is that, coming from a world in which everyone is seen as exceptional and equal, people tend to take any negative feedback quite personally and become defensive. This personalization and defensiveness interfere with her clients' ability to learn resilience, a highly important quality in people who are going to be successful.

Verresen also cites two other behavioral traits that get in the way of the career progress of her younger clients, mostly sent by companies who saw their great potential but felt they needed to overcome some leadership obstacles. One is a fear of standing out, of speaking up, of being distinct and separate from their team and peers. In order to be a leader, people need to be of the group but also somewhat distinct from those being led, and a reluctance to stand apart gets in the way of an ability to assume leadership roles.

Many of Verresen's younger clients voluntarily did things to give up their power—letting others, based on their titles, loudness, or physical postures, make decisions for them. Why? Because this younger generation, educated in places where they ostensibly didn't have to compete too much, seemed unwilling to challenge those who asserted control. As a consequence, people succumb to the temptation to engage in preemptory surrender.

Those With More Street Smarts

Nobody I know can yet answer a fundamental question: How much of this is self-selection, so that people who choose to go to business school are different at the outset, and how much of this behavior comes from the culture and classes students encounter once in business school? But coaches working with high-potential post-MBAs tell me that people who had come into organizations "the hard way," with no MBA and the accompanying favorable brand, often demonstrated more persistence, resilience, and street smarts than did their business-school-trained peers.

Success often entails finding a happy middle ground. After all, you will die from either the complete absence of many minerals, such as salt, or from consuming too much. The same search for an optimal balance is important in educating leaders. At a minimum, business schools might think about supplementing their leadership curriculum with classes that demystify power and thereby provide their students with the tools to be successful in dealing with the power, politics, and realities of organizational life.

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