Organization Power

“The Autocrat of Russia possesses more power than any other man on earth; yet he cannot stop a sneeze.”

~Mark Twain

Imagine you’re the CEO of one of the biggest industrial outfits in the world.  Commanding of all of the resources your company has at its disposal, that makes you a very powerful leader. Sure, it’s a tough job, but I hear the pay is terrific. You’d be financially set for life.

Moreover, you could put all that power you wield to fix the problems you’ve been complaining about for years. Yes, those problems.  Good leader that you are, armed with the organization power you have, that’s exactly that’s what you’d do. Off you go.

Early one morning, your phone rings. To say the news on the other end is not good is an understatement.  It’s more like the phone call from Hell: there’s been a horrible accident; it’s caused a huge leak; people have been killed; the public is outraged.  As CEO, it’s your worst nightmare.

Can you picture something like that? Sure you can. In fact…

But don’t go jumping ahead. The accident I have in mind happened twenty five years ago.  The CEO on the receiving end of the news was Warren Anderson. His company was Union Carbide Corporation. My old company. The accident involved a leak at a small chemical plant that wasn’t even running at the time. The location: a town in India named Bhopal.

It was one of those events with names that shook the industrial world.

Did you know Warren Anderson visited Bhopal in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy? To see what he, powerful leader that he was, could do to mitigate the damage. At that point, there wasn’t a lot a CEO could do.

Oh,  and his reward for being a stand-up guy? The local authorities placed him under house arrest, saying he was responsible for the accident.  A quarter of a century later, nearly 90 years old and in failing health, Warren Anderson still faces the possibility of trial.

A CEO, set for life?

Who’s Got Power?

The moral of this story isn’t to make you feel better about not making it to the top of your outfit. Precious few do.  Or to convince you that if you’re going to make it to the top, it’s better to do that in a business that doesn’t have the potential to kill people. 

Of course, every business has that potential.

No, the point served here has to do with who has the power to make a real difference in determining who goes home safe – and who doesn’t. And why power in organizations is so commonly misunderstood by those on the outside looking in – and those on the inside looking up.

You know the theory of organization power.  It’s found in the model of the organization pyramid: the higher up you go, the fewer leaders there are, and the more power each wields. Sitting at the pinnacle is the leader with the most power of anyone in the organization, be his title Pharaoh, Pope, President, Prime Minister – or Chairman of the Board.

That’s the conventional wisdom.

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right on the money. Like the value of “leading by example.” It’s the oldest tenet of leadership on the planet, yet still the best. If every leader were to faithfully lead by example, the world would be a better – and safer – place. But we leaders are human, and some of us leaders are far too human.

On the other hand, sometimes the conventional wisdom is way off the mark. When that’s the case, what people think is wrong.  It isn’t just the thinking that’s wrong; so are the actions that are based on that thinking. If you want to be smart and successful, you have to figure out when the conventional wisdom is right – and when it isn’t.  Professor Frank Miller taught me that almost forty years ago.

Every once in a while, events figure out the right answer for you.  All you have to do is pay attention. Big accidents like Bhopal shed a great deal of light on the question of who’s got power – as it relates to safety.

Power – and Responsibility

In the setting of the organization, power is the ability to make what you want happen. That’s easy to understand.  People think the CEO, sitting at the top of the pyramid, has plenty of power.

Try putting yourself in the shoes of a CEO – after a big accident. Did the CEO want that accident to happen? Of course not.  But, like Twain’s Autocrat, he proved incapable of stopping it. So how much power does he effectively wield? Not much.

If he couldn’t stop it, does that make him responsible for what went wrong?

Now there’s an interesting question. It’s hardly an academic one.  Was Warren Anderson responsible for the accident in Bhopal? He wasn’t there:  he didn’t “do” it himself. You know that.  On the other hand, he was the CEO of the company; people working for him did something to cause the accident.

The answer to the question, “Was he responsible?” depends on how you define the word responsible. In the aftermath of an accident, you’re not the only who has an opinion. There’s the court of public opinion: all those on the outside who have an opinion.  You know how they think: the CEO is responsible – whether he was on the ground or not – because it happened on his watch.

That’s why leading – particularly on something important like safety – is such a tough job. Every leader has to answer for everything that happens in his or her area of responsibility. Sound familiar? The higher up you go in the organization, the bigger that area is. The guy at the top is responsible for everything that goes on in the organization.

He knows that.

Power to the People

Now to the point of making sense of organization power and safety – sending everyone home alive and well at the end of every day: Who has the power to stop an accident from happening?

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the CEO really has very little power to prevent accidents from happening. If it were otherwise, accidents would have stopped happening a long time ago. For a long list of reasons, no CEO wants accidents to happen.

In reality, there is a power vacuum at the top: top leaders often feel powerless to make their companies safe – no matter how hard they try. Admittedly, not all leaders try as hard as they should. And yes, sometimes what the guy at the top does – or doesn’t do – contributes directly to the causes of an accident.  You have to look deeply into all the factors in play to see the ways in which a leader might have contributed to an accident.  But there are plenty of cases where a leader tried doing all the right things, and an accident still happened.

Which suggests you have to look somewhere else in the organization to find out who really has the real power. A good candidate: the guy with his “hands on the tools” and his front line leader. They’re often the ones with the best capability to prevent an accident from happening. They’re there on the scene; they know what’s going on; they get to make some of the most important choices about tools, methods, procedures, equipment, skills and qualifications of those doing the work. The kind of important matters that play large in determining who goes home safe – and who doesn’t.

That is a whole lot of power!

Making Wisdom Conventional

The big accidents consistently prove the conventional wisdom about power wrong.  It’s the guys down at the base of the organization pyramid who hold the most organization power. Far more power than they ever imagined.

But that’s not how most people in organizations think. Because they don’t think that way, they don’t act that way. That becomes their reality. If someone doesn’t think they have power, they might as well not have any. They’ll act like “It’s someone else’s decision,” and “Just follow orders”, or, “Do things the way the same old way they’ve always been done.”  When that’s reality, nobody has power.

Imagine that.

The Last Word

Twenty five years ago, an oil executive told me, “The closer you get to the wellhead, the more job security you have.” The same thing holds true for safety: the closer you are to the work, the more power you have.  That’s not the conventional wisdom – but it’s reality.

Why not start acting as if you had that power?

If you did, you’d be amazed at how much power you would have.  If everyone started acting as if they had power, you’d be amazed at how much safer the world of work would be.

Which is exactly what a CEO would want to happen in the first place.

Imagine that.

Paul Balmert

June 2010

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