Corporate Governance

Are power posers better leaders?

20 November 2015

Human Capital Alliance senior advisor K I Woo looks at leadership.

A recent Stanford University study concluded that publicly-perceived leadership-qualities such as authority, power and emotional intelligence don’t actually correlate with what companies require from their leaders.

Sarah Cliffe’s Harvard Business Review’s article “Leadership Qualities vs Competence” based on the study said competence and deep knowledge of what needs to be done is a more important success factor.

The paper also looks at when power differences contribute to team success and when they damage it.

Power poses

Many of today’s leaders use power poses that help them appear to be someone of authority.

The poses often based on extensive research have great value, but they may at the same time lead us to ignore and cast-aside the importance of selecting competent individuals as leaders.

The researchers said a Cornell University study showed that in many cases, the least competent but most overconfident people often ended up in charge.

What does competence mean?

Competence is described by the researchers as deep knowledge of the technical work being done.

With this deep knowledge, competent leaders are more enable to help their teams seek out new ideas and better solutions.

Three team-types studied

In the Stanford study, three different team types were asked to search collaboratively for the best solution to a complex problem.

The first group was led by leaders who knew most about the task. In this case influence was aligned with competence and these groups performed best.

A second group of teams shared power and were relatively non-hierarchical. This group did not perform as well as the first, but they did outperform the third group that included hierarchical teams with a randomly chosen leaders.

“We replicated these findings in the field, by the way. We studied 49 teams at a publicly held Dutch company; the teams were auditing finances in search of tax evasion and fraud. If the team leader didn’t have a deep, technical understanding of tax fraud, he or she led the team badly astray.”

Study takeaways

Companies and organizations must pay closer attention to how they we choose leaders.

In particular, they must not be overly influenced by political connections or persuasiveness or the appearance of authority.

“Some of those things can be useful, but competence comes first. It’s essential to use objective measures of performance in hiring and promotion.”

Secondly, we must be careful of formal hierarchy’s dangers.

Important decisions, the researchers said require the best possible information. Leaders must be able to value the expertise of other team members and share power when they’re not best-suited to make a decision.

Thirdly, it’s critically important to know where knowledge in the company currently resides. Many fast-growing companies often lose track and are unable to appropriately address the issue.

“Every couple of months, a team should take stock of what challenges are most pressing, and who has deep knowledge that’s relevant to those challenges.


Consulting companies often face the same leadership dilemma when selecting project leaders.

Cliffe said in many consulting engagements, the person who brought in the client isn’t necessarily the most knowledgeable about the work to be done,

“Leadership roles are better assigned once you understand who knows what, and they may need to shift in the course of the project as new issues arise.”

When do self-managed teams, or “holocracies,” work best?

The researchers indicated that self-managed teams or “holocracies” work best if power can’t be aligned with the right set of competencies.

In those situations, an egalitarian team may be a good idea, they said.

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