Monday, November 16, 2009

The World's Most Powerful People

The World’s Most Powerful People

As I was searching for a topic for this last blog post, I found myself on, “Homepage for the World’s Business Leaders.” Surely with a title like that, they must know a thing or two about leadership. Sure enough, right on their homepage was a link to their list of the “World’s Most Powerful People,” and I set out to find what their criteria were, and if this could turn out to be a list of the most well-known leaders of the world. After all, the link takes you to section of the site called “Leadership.”

The list is comprised of “67 heads of state, criminals, financiers, and philanthropists who really run the world.” So far, these sound like leaders to me. I read on to find their four dimensions that define power:

1. Influence over lots of other people
2. Control over large financial resources compared with peers
3. Powerful in multiple spheres – projecting influence in multiple ways
4. Actively use their power

Countless numbers of our readings have included influence and power in analyses of leadership. Heifitz writes about leaders influencing people to accept the leader’s vision without coercion. He means that it is the leader’s job to convince the followers that the vision he or she has set is the best solution to solving the problems the organization is facing (Heifitz, 1994). Similar to Heifitz, Gardner mentions power when he says that leaders have the power to set the agenda, which then enables them to mobilize their followers (Gardner, 1990). Stogdill would agree with #4 that leaders must be active, since leadership is a working relationship wherein the leader is an active participant. He says that “leadership implies activity, movement, getting work done.” This would mean that a leader must be using his or her power or influence at all times with the goal of accomplishing a task (Stogdill, 1948). Hughes explicitly outlines different types of power and defines influence a leader has over followers. He defines power as the capacity to produce effects on others or the potential to influence. A leader will use influence tactics to change a follower’s beliefs or behaviors. He then explains the five different types of power: expert power, referent power, legitimate power, reward power, and coercive power (Hughes, 1993). Surely if we went down the entire Forbes list, we would find many examples of each of these types of power. These readings, among many others I’m sure I have omitted, are important in distinguishing a “powerful person” from a leader. Many theorists (Hughes, Gardner, Stogdill) would argue that a leader has power, whether it is just to set the goals for the organization, or if it is the power of a leader’s knowledge the gives him or her authority over the followers.

I would personally argue that while Forbes’ “power dimensions” are not a definition of leadership in themselves, they have hit on two major points we have discussed in our own search for the definition. I would, however, leave #3 out because I don’t think that relative control of financial resources is a necessary attribute of a leader. I am glad that Forbes chose to title their list “World’s Most Powerful People” and not “The World’s Most Influential Leaders” because I think their intent was really to highlight the power these people possess, and not their leadership traits, skills, or style. Though power and influence is important to leadership, those two factors alone do not make up a leader. This list is still important because it shows how the influence or power held by only 67 people can have an impact on nearly every one of the other 6,700,000,000 people on this planet.

If you look at the complete list at you will see familiar names. At the top of the list is our country’s leader, President Barack Obama. In addition to many other heads of state, also on the list are Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, Pope Benedict XVI, and Rex Tillerson (ExxonMobil). It’s quite an impressive list, and we could spend another full semester deciding whether or not these people are leaders.

I think it is safe to say that not all leaders have to be powerful in the way Forbes describes, since leaders can have a smaller impact on the world, but do you think all really powerful people are leaders?