• Published
  • AETC Director of Safety
Power is an interesting concept. Many Airmen operate power tools at work, and our pilots apply power to their aircraft. More often than not, the item receiving the power responds immediately. There are also leaders who wield merciless power to coerce behavior from employees. I recall a friend who likened his experience with one such leader to a baby seal being clubbed on a beach. ... And he felt like the seal!

Dr. Peter Northouse describes coercion as one of five types of power proposed by French and Raven in 1959. Specifically, it is the use of force to influence behavior by manipulating the penalties and rewards in the work environment via threats and punishment.

So if club-power will guarantee results, why don't leaders just demand their subordinates be safe and then threaten them to get the desired results? Perhaps coercive power would have prevented the loss of 70 Air Force men and women who died in ground mishaps last year.

But, as you might suspect, there are some pitfalls to this approach. Remember my club-suffering friend? He knew the boss wasn't interested in his wants, needs or a common goal. He was only forcing subordinates to comply. And when the club-wielding supervisor left, compliance stopped quicker than an unplugged power tool or a jet engine during shutdown. The bullying boss had zero power when he was absent.

Of the 70 Airmen lost in ground mishaps last year, 64 died while off duty. Most died in the privacy of their private motor vehicle or alone on a motorcycle. Unfortunately, nonuse of motorcycle helmets, failure to buckle seat belts, high rates of speed, fatigue, and the use of alcohol were involved in some of these mishaps. Bosses and workstations were miles away.

So how does a leader or friend influence, versus coerce, others to desire a positive, mishap-free environment, and then make personal choices to nourish that culture?

That's easy. It doesn't come from the club; it comes from the heart.

Rely less on formal authority based on organizational wiring diagrams and more on personal power. This astonishing power doesn't come from higher authority, but from people who believe what you have to say has value. Via sincerity, caring, compassion and kindness, a sense of intrinsic personal satisfaction occurs when people identify with someone who honestly cares about their safety.

And unlike coercion, the influence may last a lifetime.
Research for this article comes from Northouse, P.G. Leadership Theory and Practice: Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc. (2004).