Power under control: Building effective ‘circuits’ for presidential power


During my time as president of two different community colleges, I have learned that it is possible to increase your influence and effectiveness by consciously limiting your own power. I truly wish I had learned this sooner.

While my academic background is in English, not electronics, I have found the following electricity metaphor useful in conceptualizing this principle. Most electronic devices contain tiny components called “capacitors” and “resistors.” A capacitor stores an electric charge for later use like a large municipal water tank. The water tank closest to your campus is continuously being filled with water; the water is stored to create water pressure at a later time on demand.

This commentary comes from the October/November issue of the Community College Journal.

A resistor, on the other hand, reduces the flow of electric current in a circuit. Using the water metaphor again, a resistor functions like a flow restrictor in a shower head, resulting in lower water pressure. From my perspective, it’s important to build an internal circuit of capacitors and resistors to the power and influence associated with your position to use it purposefully and meaningfully when it is required. Here are two examples.

After hours communications

The role of college president is a 24/7 job, and we do not have control over the timing of crises and incoming communications. This does not mean, however, that every issue that presents itself must immediately be transmitted to your team. For example, it is common for me to receive communications and complaints late in the evening or on the weekends. This is part of the job. I have wired a timing “capacitor” into my communication flow for non-urgent issues. I respond to the communication I have received, but I wait for the next morning to loop in my team.

I learned the hard way that beginning a communication, “This can wait until tomorrow, but…” does not work. Any communication from me during dinner, the late evening or the weekend creates a disruption simply by being received. For non-emergency situations, I will not be expecting action until the start of the next business day, anyway, so why intrude unnecessarily?

One reason I do this is to preserve my team members’ bandwidth, as I know there will be times when the situation will require that I interrupt evenings and weekends. A simple calendar reminder or note saved to my “drafts” folder is all that is required on my part. Crises and emergencies are unavoidable, and this “capacitor” strategy allows me to save those after-hours interruptions for when they are truly necessary.

Public speaking situations

The farther I have progressed in my career, the less likely it has become that people will interrupt me or let me know that my allotted time has expired during a public speaking event. Who feels comfortable telling the president that they really need to move things along? For this reason, I make sure that I am the one who interrupts myself. I am actually very upfront about this. I take a small kitchen timer with me to all of my public speaking events, and I place it where I can clearly see how long I have been talking.

I have built a “resistor” circuit into my public speaking in the form of my timer so I can self-regulate the amount of time I take during an agenda. This has the added benefit of providing a model for others to be mindful of how long they speak, encouraging others not to dominate the conversation or event agenda.

It may seem counterintuitive to limit one’s own power in important situations, but both of these examples demonstrate how these circuits can have important results.

While I am certain he was not thinking of electrical circuits when he said this, a notable 1939 quotation from the labor leader Walter Reuther comes to mind: “We must demonstrate that we are a disciplined, responsible organization; that we not only have power, but that we have power under control.”

As one of my leadership models, Reuther’s example shows that the controlled and thoughtful use of power is far more effective than an approach that is ad hoc and haphazard.

About the Author

Steve Robinson
Steve Robinson, Ph.D., is president of Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.