The Paradox Of Powerful Leadership

Monika Barton
Mar 05, 2020

Leaders are under continuous pressure to deliver greater innovation and creativity. However, many businesses maintain power structures that are rigid and disempowering. How do business leaders respond to new paradigms of work while maintaining authority and trust?

“Leaders have power. But, it doesn’t mean they understand power.”

With this bold statement, Alf Rehn, Professor of Innovation Design Management and Thinkers50 guru, sets the tone for a fascinating conversation exploring what modern power is, why successful leaders must learn to give it away, and how greater vulnerability in the boardroom is the key to success.

The role of truth speakers

On the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Paris, Clementine Churchill wrote a poignant letter to her husband, Winston Churchill. In it, she lovingly rebuked him for his recent difficult demeanour. But she also gave him a stark warning: without a change in behaviour, he would not achieve his goals.

This letter is a powerful example of speaking truth to power. For Alf, this is a central tenet for successful leadership.

“I think we underestimate how important it is that we have people around us who whisper in our ears and say listen ‘you’re being difficult’ or ‘you’re not being your best self’,” says Alf.

However, he observes “often in our organisations we are so worried about seeming serious and proper that we don’t bring in these agents of chaos. This only diminishes our power rather than increases it. Because, how can we truly reflect on what power is without them?”

Jesters have an important role is speaking truth to power

Who are our modern-day jesters?

Business leaders need truth speakers or ‘jesters’ as Alf describes them. These are people who speak without fear. Yet, their presence appears to be missing from contemporary organisational structures.

Alf explains, “We have tricksters in modern business, but we call them consultants. But these are not the punk rockers you need. No, most innovation consultants I know, are very good boys and girls.”

The problem is that not all CEO’s are open to hearing the truth. Even though, “the ones open to being challenged and pushed tend to be the ones which are best at using power” observes Alf.

The power paradox

In contrast to the bullying macho image, cultural mythology likes to depict, Alf personally subscribes to “the idea that power isn’t something that just resides in a person. But rather, is a complex network where every time we deploy power, we also become the slaves of power.”

Moreover, he argues that if you want to lead in a powerful yet also positive way, you “need to start listening and thinking about how you give power to others. Because this starts to engender loyalty and trust, which are immensely more powerful in the long run.”

“Leaders who embody this, who understand they are still the same person who is a loving husband and a kind father, bring the power of heart and soul into the office.”

The real power of vulnerability

True power requires vulnerability

On the surface, power and vulnerability are not the most obvious of bedfellows. However, these two concepts, not only co-exist, but are mutually necessary.

“We have learned so much in our private lives about trust, power, vulnerability, and about letting go,” explains Alf.

He goes on to argue that although “we may not love our colleagues the way we would love a partner or our children, we still need to have kindness and trust towards them. And leaders who embody this, who understand they are still the same person who is a loving husband and a kind father, bring the power of heart and soul into the office.”

Powerful leadership is learned, not inherited

Power is not intrinsic. For leaders to embrace a journey of growth, they need to accept that it’s a process.

The problem is “humans want to do it all at once. But that’s not how it works” says Alf. “Start by giving a person in your team some more power and see what happens. Did you feel vulnerable or scared? In taking it one step at a time, reflecting during every level, you can see what it can be.”

For Churchill, this process wouldn’t have been easy. But, Alfs observes in the end “he learned to delegate power, and he learned to trust, and he learned to listen to others.”


Today’s organisations face new models of working with employees demanding greater autonomy and control over their professional lives. So, business leaders who choose the wield their power like a woodsman with an axe, only risk breeding a slave mentality instead of trust and loyalty, which are far more powerful motivators.

In contrast, Alf argues, business leaders in the 21st Century must learn to embrace human facets of kindness, courage and vulnerability if they want to empower their organisations to achieve true success.

This article accompanies a recent interview with Alf Rehn as part of Headspring’s podcast series.

To listen to more interviews with other leading thinkers in organisational and individual transformation, visit the Learning REWIRED page here.


Monika Barton

Monika Barton

Monika Barton is a content writer and researcher with over 15 years of management and communications experience in the public and private sector in the U.K. She specialises in writing about H.R., the employee experience, and disruptive technologies and their impact on the world.