Power-Distance and Caring Leadership (Part I)

In leadership workshops in Central Asia, we often compare the strengths and weaknesses of an authoritarian (power, position) leader with a people (relational) leader. Normally, a people leader receives a better rating. Everyone appreciates a leader who likes being with their staff, sits down with them for a cup of tea, and relates to them as friends and peers.

But after a few minutes of discussion, someone in the workshop blurts out, “But it won’t take long before we will have ripped such a leader into shreds.” “Or, they say, “If the director is too friendly, the staff won’t respect the director anymore.”

Position with Honor

Some cultures naturally resort to top-down style of leadership. A director is credited with ascribed honor because of their position.

In one leadership workshop at a college, the professors invited me to meet the director first. They led me up a large stairway, down the hall, into a receiving room, and then into a large office, with couches and chairs. At the far end of this great room was an immense desk, with a leather armchair. Rising from behind the desk was a smallish man in a white suit – the President of the college. He greeted me cordially, but I soon wondered, “Does he even know that we’re having a leadership seminar today?”

This president had honor. He carried respect, at least outwardly – because of his title, ‘The President.’  But he seemed far off from those he was leading.

This is high power-distance, where a leader remains separate from those they are leading. This distance is both physical and psychological, often expressed by attitude and behaviour. Because the director is ‘higher-up’, the staff tends to ‘look up to’ (respect) the director and the director tends to ‘look down’ (disrespect) on the staff.

Why distance?

Why would directors naturally distance themselves from the people they lead? In a leadership class in Afghanistan we gathered these answers.

  • Distance gives a director a sense of significance. He is busy with major issues and it would be demeaning to relate to petty issues of the community.
  • Distance shelters a director from criticism. He can hide or cover up his short comings and failures if he is distant from his staff and clients.
  • Distance helps a director keep secrets. He does not need to be accountable or open with the people. This breeds suspicion and more easily leads to corruption.

This means the more separation or distance between a director and staff, the more respect the director receives.[1] In other words, the greater the distance the director maintains from others, the more honor he has. It becomes difficult for a leader to mingle with their staff and listen to them. They may lose respect and no longer be considered a leader.

Here is the question for directors and managers (including leaders, teachers and parents): what distance are we in relation to those we lead? How should power be distributed? Should we remove all distance? Although Westerners like to talk about equality or even egalitarianism, is it feasible that power be distributed equally? If we would all become equal, do we then settle for bland egalitarianism and sameness?

Note: This article has a part II as well, and it will be posted next week.

Author: Alrey Loewen

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