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Positive Power in Organizations

written by Peter Minich 16 July 2010

Peter J Minich, MD, Ph.D, MAPP '06 is author of Rethinking Power in Healthcare: What to do when Authority Fails and Patients Suffer. He is a practicing surgeon in Toronto Canada. He teaches leadership to leaders from all walks of life, in all parts of the world. Visit Peter's Web site. Full bio.

Peter's articles are here.

The image of a powerful organizational leader conjures up an archetype of strength, knowledge, and wisdom. It makes us think of a leader who knows the right thing to do and does it. The rest of us are happy to follow along. Certainly the doctor who mobilizes an operating team to save a patient fits these classic notions of power.

Drawbacks of Power

But that kind of power can have immense drawbacks. In a series of experiments, researcher Nathaniel Fast and colleagues have found that power can give people an illusory sense of control over outcomes, when these outcomes may be beyond the reach of any individual. This illusion of control can lead to unrealistic optimism and inflated egos. Research by Fast and Larissa Tiedens gives insight into the contagious spread of blame when things then do go wrong. People get busy protecting their self-images. Even observing someone blaming someone else for a mistake can result in people turning around and blaming others for completely unrelated problems.

What are the Alternatives?

What happens, for example, when a doctor concludes that real organizational power is achieved by abandoning the notion that power comes from position, hierarchy, in other words, authority, believing instead that lasting influence comes from a leader’s social intelligence and inherent strengths such as empathy, humility, and perhaps even egolessness? How does a leader grow psychological safety within the organization?

These are, I believe, the critical themes to consider as leaders who were accustomed to being listened to, suddenly find themselves without an obedient audience, paddling upstream in floundering organizations. Our organizations are being asked to deal with extremely complex challenges in a very difficult fiscal climate. Our organizations are also filled with committed people with varied beliefs, strengths, and ideas; in other words, talent. These people also have the energy and thus power to support or sabotage leadership.

Now is the time for leaders to rethink their own notions of power, and build new behaviors that help, rather than hinder their leadership. With a simple framework, habits that build influence can be learned and practiced. Core strengths are at the heart of the matter, and these can be amplified with time and practice. Positive, competitive, and innovative environments and psychological safety come from leaders who learn to listen.




Fast, N., Gruenfeld, D., Sivanathan, N., & Galinsk, A. (2009). Illusory control: A generative force behind power’s far-Reaching effects. Psychological Science, 20(4), 502-508.

Fast, N. (2010). How to stop the blame game. Harvard Business Review blog.

Fast, N. & Tiedens, L. (2010). Blame contagion: The automatic transmission of self-serving attributions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 97-106.

Minich, P. J. (2009). Rethinking Power in Healthcare: What to do when Authority Fails and Patients Suffer. Lulu Publishing.

Minich, P. J. & Deal, T. (2003). Sick Patients Sicker System: How Clinician Leaders Become System Healers. Peter Minich Publishing.

Britton, K. H. (2010). Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility. PPND.

Britton, K. H. (2010). Relational Coordination: Learning not Blame. PPND.

Rethinking Power<br/>Peter Minich

Rethinking Power
Peter Minich

Surgeon Leader courtesy of Andy G

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Kathryn Britton 18 July 2010 - 5:33 pm


Does your book contain stories about what clinicians have been able to do if they listen — and, as you put it, rethink power? Could you tell a mini-story here to give us an idea? I find that stories make ideas so much easier to grasp and remember.


Doug Hensch 19 July 2010 - 6:20 am

Peter – Thanks for your post. Definitely some interesting points to consider. In fact, seeing that you are a surgeon, it made me think of the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande where he shows that applicability of checklists in many domains. In particular, I found it fascinating how many surgeons seemed to be unwilling to give up their absolute power by allowing someone else to (usually a nurse) to take command of the process by reading a checklist then allowing anyone in the room to stop the process if something is not right. Your thoughts?


Allyson 27 October 2010 - 8:36 pm


Hi! I have seen an example of your article just recently after hearing about the atmosphere within my father’s workplace – his own manager is accusing him of mistakes that the manager made himself. I think part of it has to do with having corporate executives breathing down his neck; he is worried about his own self-image within the company.

What would be your thoughts on how to help alleiviate this problem of inflated egos in corporations today? My initial thought would be instead of having a single leader would be to have a team of leaders (3 or more individuals). Therefore instead of putting a large amount of pressure on one person, a team could handle the problem by making rational decisions and compromising on the best solutions to the problem at hand. I would love to hear your thoughts!

Allyson F.


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