Susan Letterman White

Leadership, Power, and Politics: How Can You Obtain the Power to Shape Action in Your Organization?

Law firms, governmental agencies, law schools, corporations, not-for-profit agencies, industry groups, and small businesses are organizations. Organizations are systems of government; they are “intrinsically political,” says Gareth Morgan in his classic book, Images of Organization. What does this mean for you?

Attaining personal power in any organization depends upon understanding how the power necessary to make decisions and shape action is actually assigned. If your goals include attaining power in your organization or developing a book of business from a current client or target client organization, you must understand and successfully manage yourself in the political waters of the organization.
Political dynamics are at play when different people successfully advance their specific, diverse, and conflicting interests. If you want to understand diversity and inclusion, you must understand political dynamics. If you want to understand how to successfully implement any strategic initiative in any organization, you must understand the organization’s political dynamics.
Political dynamics shape negotiations and mediations. They create and maintain order among the members of the organization. How does your organization assign power to shape action? How does your client or target client assign power?
First, let’s look at the various designs supporting the vesting and exercise of power, according to Morgan. These designs are present in varying degrees in almost any relationship and most certainly in the organizations that matter most to your success in becoming a powerful leader in your organization and industry. For each type of power there are two questions to ask yourself before developing an action plan to address the political dynamics necessary to reach your specific goals: (1) Do I need to acquire this type of power? (2) Do I need someone, who has this type of power, to shape action that supports one of my goals? The most common types of political dynamics are as follows:
  • Autocracy: Power resides in a single person or small group, which controls resources and ownership rights. The person with this type of power has risen to this privileged role because of charisma, control over resources or ownership rights (e.g., client relationships and books of business), and/or tradition.
  • Bureaucracy: Power resides in the written rules, policies, or procedures.  Think of the power derived from a partnership or shareholder agreement and evaluation and compensation procedures.
  • Technocracy: Power resides in one’s expert ability to solve relevant problems; for instance, possessing a unique legal skill that is in high demand.
  • Codetermination: Power rests in a coalition comprising opposing power bases, such as individuals or groups. In some firms, leadership powers are vested in a group of representatives from different power bases.
  • Representative Democracy: Power rests in those elected to office for a specified period of time.
  • Direct Democracy: Power rests in everyone equally. In many law firms, this leads to slow decision-making or an inability to make decisions at all.
Organizations will generally use mixed types of power dynamics; although, they may lean more strongly toward one type.   As you design, implement, and revise your goal-oriented action plans, identify the various political dynamics that are and will continue to impact your ability to successfully implement your plan. Adjust your action plan as needed. Keep in mind that the best strategy, which is exactly what an action plan is, is constantly revised.  Strategy is a process of intelligent experimentation. Keep in mind that women are exceptionally well suited for the creative endeavor that defines intelligent experimentation.
Identifying and Navigating Political Dynamics
Which types of political dynamics are at play in your organization?  These dynamics might be present at the highest levels of the organization or within a particular practice group.  Those at the highest level may be different from those within various groups.  You will need to analyze the dynamics at all levels that affect your ability to accomplish your goals.  Remember that there are always two possibilities: (1) Do you need or want this type of power? (2) Do you need the help of a person with this type of power?
Autocratic Power
Does accomplishing your goals require access to particular resources or ownership rights, over which a single person has control? For example, if you want to work for a particular client or be involved in a particular client presentation, you need an action plan to influence the partner with the client relationship to include you. If you want to implement a particular program at your law firm and that decision rests with a single managing partner, you need an action plan to influence that person to let you lead a task force to implement the program.  These are examples of autocratic dynamics. Accomplishing goals, which depend upon your successfully navigating autocratic dynamics, means finding out what the person in control wants or needs before he or she will support your goals.  Learn as much as possible about what motivates this person to do anything. Gather data from others and directly from the person by asking him or her. Don’t complain that there are no written guidelines; in these instances that is not where the critical power resides.
If you want this type of power, what is the barrier to acquisition? Is it a particular type of charisma?  Is it family tradition or deeply embedded in the history and culture of the firm? Is it control over particular resources, like a significant book of business? Is it possible for you to cross this barrier?  What is your action plan? You may not ever have the type of charisma required. If so, do not waste your time.
Bureaucratic Power
The person with the most bureaucratic power is the one who bests understand the written requirements to its exercise. Is there a barrier in the form of written agreements, policies, and/or procedures between you and your goal? If so, there are bureaucratic dynamics to consider. For example, if you want to qualify for a bonus, what are the written standards you are required to meet? If you want to become the managing partner of your firm, what is the procedure to follow? If you want to serve on a particular committee, what is the process? What are the standards, if any, for becoming an equity partner or getting the work assignments that you want?  Having the best relationships with the most important partners may necessary; but, not sufficient for you to advance if there are specific written guidelines that govern advancement.
Technocratic Power
This is a power that you ought to want for yourself. It is linked directly to client relationships and one’s book of business. There are two parts to technocratic power.  First, one possesses an expertise, which few others have.  Second, this expertise is in high demand.
This is a power that you ought to want for yourself. It is linked directly to client relationships and one’s book of business. There are two parts to technocratic power.  First, one possesses an expertise, which few others have.  Second, this expertise is in high demand.


In a law firm, technocratic power generally creates the ability to charge one’s clients without the downward market pressure we see attached to commodity work. Is there a particular client need that only you can fulfill because of your expertise or some other factor, like the process for delivery or additional deep value? Is there an expertise you ought to develop so that you are positioning yourself for the vesting of technocratic power?
The Power of Codetermination
Have you been told that getting permission to do what you want is dependent on whether several people will agree? A firm, which is governed by a committee or group comprising people from various factions or cliques within the firm, is an example of codetermination dynamics. Your best option is to convince the various people individually to support your request.  Otherwise, you risk convincing fewer people than you need for a favorable vote.  I have seen a person from one faction convince only the faction leader, who then is unable to convince the leaders of the other factions.
The Power of a Representative Democracy
If people are elected to office for a stated period of time, the dynamics of a representative democracy are present. Time is a factor to consider if the power dynamics are presently unfavorable to your interests. Running for office is another possible option. Voting someone out of office is, yet, another option.
The Power and Problems with a Direct Democracy
If you have attended meetings as an equity partner and it seems impossible to make any decision, you have experienced first-hand the downside to direct democracy dynamics. Since everyone has an equal vote, nobody has sufficient power on his or her own.  Thus, you need to build skills in effective listening, empathy, strategic communication, negotiation, and mediation. Bringing in an outside facilitator also can help identify the dynamics and plan a course of action to improve the meeting dynamics.
Understanding and navigating the waters of an organization’s political dynamics are key skills for developing internal leadership opportunities and business from clients. Successfully navigating the political power dynamics of one’s workplace and client organizations is a skill. Invest the time to develop this skill and it will yield a high return for you. Use the following as a template for creating an appropriate action plan, which is sensitive to any political dynamics that will influence the outcome:
  1. What is your goal?  You will need to identify all goals and for each ask the rest of the questions.
  2. What is your action plan; i.e., your specific implementation steps to achieve the goal?
  3. For any implementation step, is political power an issue?
  4. If so, which type(s) of political power?
  5. What is your action plan to address the specific political dynamics? Do you need or want the power?  Do you need the help of someone who has the power?
  6. Add the necessary details to your implementation steps depending upon how you answered the prior questions.  Consider the implementation steps to be a process of intelligent experimentation and be prepared to revise as necessary.

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