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What Makes a Leader Effective? It’s About Power Motive, New Research Finds

Power motive is defined as “the desire to impact the behavior and emotions of another person,” and research from the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business advances a theory that not all power motives are bad but that some who seek to become leaders may not have the appropriate power motive to be effective. Additionally, a person’s power motive is made up of explicit and implicit bias, which is used to justify their power behavior.

Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business professor Terry Blum and colleagues have published a new research paper titled “To push performance, check the leader’s power motive” that explores why having a strong, positively oriented power motive often makes a good leader. Blum, who is the Tedd Munchak Chair in Entrepreneurship, an ADVANCE professor, and faculty director of the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact, co-wrote the paper with colleagues Lawrence James, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Nathan Bennett, Georgia State University. Their research examines the definition of power motive and makes a distinction between types of power motives, including those which are intrinsically good and those which many equate with negative characteristics, such as the desire to control based on nefarious intentions.

Blum and her colleagues use an example of two potential leaders, Grace and Gary, to compare successful and unsuccessful power motives. In examining the power motives of these two individuals, the researchers show how the thoughts and actions of Grace and Gary are shaped by biases that the two identify as their motives for power.

In Grace’s situation, she did not seek to become a leader but became one in order to take charge of her circumstances (starting her own company) and ensure that her ideas and goals were implemented. This drive led to a leadership position, in part, because she was self-motivated and determined to meet her goals, which included expanding her power motive as she expanded her company. People that display these traits do not seek power but assume it as an attempt “to identify logical causes for problems, propose rational solutions, decipher logical strengths and weakness of each solution, project dysfunctional consequences for each solution, and so forth.”

On the other hand, Gary wanted to become a leader but lacked the power motive he needed to get ahead. His explicit bias, however, made him believe that he needed to increase his status professionally and personally by becoming a leader in his company. However, his performance anxiety and inability to put forth his ideas to others without appearing overpowering displayed a lack of a power motive and therefore, kept him from becoming an effective leader.

The researchers believe that understanding these types of power motives is essential to identifying successful leaders.

They also delve into agentic bias and provide an example of how decisions are made by both Grace and Gary based on the agentic bias or justification mechanisms that leaders use to defend their use of power. Additionally, they examine how toxic leaders use channeling to impose their will upon others rather than seeking leadership as a means toward improving situations. They describe how narcissistic or aggressive personalities use their power motive to control others while nurturing and personable leaders can channel their power motives to become transformational leaders.

From their research, the team suggests that the power motive deserves to be studied more closely, not necessarily as a negative trait, but one in which leaders with a positive power motive can make a difference in their organizations and the people they lead.

The paper is available in Business Horizons, Volume 64, Issue 2, March - April 2021, Pages 181-188.

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