The Enigma of Power in Nonprofit Organizations

Presentation based primarily on the dissertation of UOPX student, Dr. Merry Fennesy.

Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence - Indiana University
Kelley A. Conrad
Merry Fennesy
Presentation Date: 
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Event or Conference: 
Leadership Engagement and Discovery Conference
Presentation Type: 
Paper Presentation
Boyer's Domain: 
Presentation Attachment(s): 
Presentation Location: 
801 W. Michigan St.
Indianapolis, IN 46202
United States
Power is a component in all social relationships (French & Raven, 1959). Robins and Judge (2015) defined power as the ability to cause a change in others. Nahavandi (2012) argued understanding how leaders use power and how power influences followers and organizations is pivotal to the study of leadership. Power, like leadership, can have rippling effects on both public and private organizations (Andersen, 2010). Power is often a dimension in leadership models. This research examined what transitioning leaders in a large regional nonprofit organization believe about leadership power in order to develop insight into about how leaders form power relationships with followers. We planned to develop a grounded theory describing how leaders at the studied nonprofit understood and used power. Including this theory in the transition process for new leaders might improve the leadership development of newly promoted managers. We found respect and fairness were values that underpinned all new leader actions and interactions. The participants in this study were extremely proud of the studied nonprofit mission and of all the good the organization does for both employees and the Southern Arizona community. Contributors described they developed their leadership styles through experience and trial and error. The culture at the studied organization is hierarchical; personal relationships between leaders and followers are discouraged hindering the establishment of informal influence. Our surprise was although the new managers recognized power as part of their leadership duties, they viewed power in a negative light. They took issue with the word “power” and equated power with authoritarianism and even tyranny. In their view, holding power over others does not align with the value of treating others with respect and fairness. The organization’s strictly enforced policy against personal leader/follower relationships also caused transitioning leaders to feel isolated and vulnerable.