Power and Responsibility – Two Sides of the Same Coin

spiderman

There is a popular quote in the Spiderman story, where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

A common understanding of this quote is that power is in our hands must be used responsibly. This is huge in an age where so much power (economic, military, social, or otherwise) lies in the hands of so few. Much can be said about this, but I want to focus on other aspects of the power-responsibility relationship.

Recently, I had a chat with a friend about delegation. We all know that leaders cannot (and should not) do everything on their own. They need to learn to develop others within the organization and delegate duties appropriately. My friend asked whether it would be any different for regimental systems such as the military. (How) should a leader step in when he feels that things are not going the way he thinks it should?

One way to look at such issues is to see power and responsibility as two sides of the same coin – we cannot have one have one without the other. As much as it is dangerous to give people power without responsibility (i.e. the Spiderman logic), it is arguably just as bad to give people responsibility without the corresponding power. One, this sets people up for failure. Two, when we give others responsibility without the power, we end up holding that power ourselves but without the responsibility (i.e. the same Spiderman logic)!

Think about a situation where the boss puts you in charge of a project. He tells you the project is important and puts the responsibility on you to deliver it. But along the way he micro-manages and gives you instructions all the time. When the project fails, the boss tells you that you have failed in your responsibility.

What has happened? If power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, we can look at where the two separated. First, it is useful to note that leaders make decisions all the time on how to distribute power and responsibility. For example, a leader can choose to do the work himself, or he can delegate it. He can decide how and who to delegate it to. This is a prerogative and power of leadership, and it also comes with the responsibility to make the right choices. Often, when certain appointments fail we like to look at the people in those jobs. For me, I like to also ask who had put those people in those jobs in the first place.

Next, when a leader puts responsibility on his staff, does he give them the right power to do the job well? If he does not, e.g. the leader still wants to make the day-to-day decisions, then the responsibility has not left the leader. Likewise, if he meddles or micro-manages, he effectively takes power away from the staff, and so, the responsibility reverts to the leader.

Once we see how power and responsibility are kept together, or kept apart, we can make sense of many dysfunctions in organizations. If we are serious in wanting people to take on more responsibilities, we must be prepared to give them the corresponding powers to do so. So, whether a system is regimental or not, is not the main issue. The main issue is whether power and responsibility go hand-in-hand. In a system where the powers must remain centralized, the responsibility is also centralized, and the leaders should have no illusions about it. We cannot have it both ways e.g. centralized power but diffused responsibility.

A similar logic applies to societies. Today, more Governments are realizing that they alone cannot solve the problems of society; they must involve the people. And so, there are more calls for people to step up to take on more responsibilities. This invites the question, what power will the Government give to the people? In societies, power can come in various forms, e.g. formal authority, process power, financial power, information power, influence power etc. This is where it may get awkward and uneasy. If power is “the ability or right to control people or things” (source: Merriam-Webster), then sharing power or giving it up may make people (incl. Governments) feel vulnerable. For many societies, this is the real deal, the elephant in the room. It is difficult to talk about active citizenry without a corresponding talk about power.

Spiderman popularized our thinking about power and relationship in one way. I think it is important to also look at the relationship in the other direction, that is, “with great responsibility must come great power”.

 

Photo credit

Marvel comics