Interview with CEO and Author Patricia McLagan on The Shadow Side of Power



Patricia McLagan is founder and CEO of McLagan International, Inc., a strategy execution consulting firm.

Pat’s life work has been about developing leaders and creating processes to guide the effective use of power by people in authority and by everyone at work.

One of the key questions that guides Pat’s work is:

“How do we as individuals deliberately change and develop?”

Pat is an Expert on Change and Leadership

Pat is an expert on leadership and change management, and she’s supported organization-wide leadership and organization development for GE, NASA, the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Eskom (the top utility in Southern Africa), the New York Times, AT&T, and more.

Pat is a Hall of Famer

She is the second woman and the fifteenth person inducted into the Human Resource Development Hall of Fame and is a member of the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame.

Pat is an Author

Pat is the author of many articles and books on leadership and change, including Change Is Everybody’s Business and The Age of Participation: New Governance for the Workplace and the World.

In her latest book, The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leader, Pat shares five ways that leaders fail and two ways they abuse their power, and seven lessons to be a great and principled leader for our challenging times.

Let the Interview Begin …

I’m a fan of change leadership and applying leadership skills to personal development.

In this interview, I ask Pat questions about work and life, with a focus on how to apply her best leadership insights to help us lead and drive change and transformation more effectively.

1. What is your purpose and your passion? (what drives you)


I am a passionate student of the dynamics of change and development – in people, in organizations, in society, in civilizations. This passion has driven my interest in and writing about learning (Helping Others Learn), personal change (Change Is Everybody’s Business), organization transformation and leadership (The Age of Participation: New Governance for the Workplace and the World), and, most recently, the use of power (The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leaders).

2. What is “A Day in the Life” of Pat McLagan?


I exercise and write – blogs, articles, papers, recommendations. And I work on complex change initiatives – collaborating with people on phone and Skype, meeting or leading meetings, designing and interpreting questionnaires and trying to make sense out of the intricacies of life in and around organizations. In the cracks I read, play the piano and see family and friends.

3. If you could hold on to just one memory from your life forever, what would that be?


I kid you not – being fully in the presence of the joy of any of my sons or grandchildren – their joy of being in the moment and laughing from the core.

4. What’s the big idea behind your book, the Shadow Side of Power?


When we move into a formal leadership role we take on the power mantle of that role. Power is really important energy in social systems, but it is not a rational force. Subconscious and emotional factors influence how we use and how others react to it. Unless leaders and followers use power consciously and with good intent, they can distort and pervert its use. Leaders may fail to use, misuse, or even abuse their power; followers may hold back, second guess, pander, and project unresolved past authority issues on those in present leadership roles. In other words, formal power has a shadow side that comes from both those who have and don’t have it . But the ultimate news is good. As power increases, so do many opportunities: to bring people together and get synergies today, to continually develop personal skills and smooth rough edges from past power relationships, and ultimately to leave a lasting legacy of better people, organizations, society.

5. What do leaders today need to do differently now than they did in the past?


I think leaders need to be much more aware of and courageous in their use of power. In today’s world of work there is no place to hide, it is hard to keep secrets, people are not willing to be “bossed” and controlled, abuses are rapidly exposed, no one person has all the answers, and respect for authority is at an all time low. At the same time, we really do need people in leadership roles – to guide strategies, to help pull things together, to think about the longer-term future. We live in increasingly transparent and participative times, but the opposite of authoritarianism is NOT leaderless-ness. We need hierarchy – but a functional not a domination hierarchy: leadership is a function, just as engineering, or marketing, or sales, or admin are functions. One is not better than the other. The roles are just different. Today’s leaders must move into leadership positions conscious of the power, temptations, and responsibilities that go along with the roles.

6. What are the key trends that businesses and individuals should be paying attention to?


The biggest is the breakdown of traditional organizational walls. In the past most people thought of themselves primarily as part of an organization. Now the lines are blurred. It is more accurate to see yourself in the larger value stream – somewhere in the flow of work that moves to and from customers and includes everyone involved in the transformation of a need to a solution. One big implication: the graphic that shows where an individual fits into the work picture must change from the traditional organization chart to a drawing of a more horizontal network that includes all the players in the transformation.

7. What’s next for people development for the foreseeable future?


It is vital for everyone to think about him or herself as a bundle of capabilities, not as a job title. What knowledge, skills and values do you possess and are you developing? See these as building blocks to assemble in various ways as the needs of businesses and customers change. The pace of change will continue to accelerate. Jobs will continue to rapidly become obsolete. Each of us must both be able to reconfigure our capabilities, retire those that are no longer relevant, and continually develop new knowledge and skills.

8. Can you talk about a time when you had to overcome a major obstacle?


Sure. I was a handicapped kid with a leg brace. It was back in the days when doctors immobilized you rather than using strengthening therapies. I got tired of being held back by the brace, threw it away, and without realizing the benefit, began to strengthen my leg on my own. This has become my symbol for overcoming obstacles today: replace immobilization with strengthening; follow your best instincts in order to live a full life.

9. If you could do your life journey over again, what would you do differently?


Spend more time with my children, now grown.

10. What is the most important lesson about change and transformation that you didn’t learn in school?


Life does not proceed in a straight upward line. There are zigs and zags. There are times of utter confusion and desperation. There are times in the proverbial belly of the whale where you don’t think you will ever see the light of day or find the answer or goal you seek. These “dark” times are an important part of the transformation process. There are times when something new is gestating and trying to be born. Rather than fight or run from them, walk into the “dark night of the soul” knowing that it is an important and generative element in the journey. Having said this, I must admit that it is never easy.

11. What words of wisdom would you want to pass on to aspiring change leaders?


I don’t believe you “manage” change in the sense of beating the world into your mold or plan. The best change leader is continually sensing to discover what is trying to happen. Change is an inevitable part of life and there is a certain amount of wisdom that will often come to light without our intervention. Learn how to strategize. Learn about the typical patterns that occur as people and systems change, develop your ability to facilitate and help changes along. Don’t panic when the change process goes into its “dark night” phases (remember, things sometimes have to fall apart in order to move forward). And don’t be afraid to stand for the status quo when that makes sense. I have come to be very suspicious of formulaic change management. Create plans, but know that they will only be a part of the process.


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