In Dave, one of my very favorite movies, actor Kevin Kline plays the owner of an employment agency who is plucked from obscurity and thrust into power as a body double for an ailing U.S. president. At first, Dave is a bit confused by all the attention, but as his enthusiasm for the job grows, so does the “president’s” popularity — and with it, the expectation that he actually do broad and good things with the power at his disposal. The movie is incredibly charming, fun and implausible, but I have a soft spot for Capra-esque films and the theme of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in challenging circumstances. So what can Dave tell us about leadership, power and achieving common goals, both public and private? For more on that, we need to consult a few good books.
In the film, Dave is first overwhelmed and then emboldened by the challenge of solving the crushing problems facing the nation. He has power and according to the fascinating new book Power for All by professors Julie Battilana of Harvard Business School and Tiziana Casciaro from the University of Toronto, that means the ability to influence others’ behavior, through persuasion or coercion, because someone controls access to resources that others value. Moreover, we all have power; it’s not inherently dirty or corrosive — it’s a human element, a relational energy and the “resources” we control go far beyond money and material incentives and also include recognition and relationships. The best leaders are empathetic and intentional in using “power” in business and personal relationships and avoid decisions that simply entrench their position regardless of collateral consequences on others. NYU-Stern Professor William Silber has a lot more on that typical behavior in his entertaining new book, The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War and Business.
Dave, as president, has the right power focus and a collaborative, problem-solving mindset. He brings in his accountant, Murray, to analyze the budget deficit and later on, announces a plan to find a job for every American who wants one. Bold moves and yet, unsurprisingly, he soon learns that not all problems can be finally solved through sheer power; many simply reshape, evolve and re-emerge from an achieved steady state. That’s an important lesson for leaders according to the four co-authors of the insightful new book The Transformation Myth: Leading Your Organization Through Uncertain Times, which distills feedback, insights and practical tips from more than 50 executives and thought leaders in multiple industries on pandemic, supply-chain, and other seismic disruptions and ever-present uncertainty.
In the end, Dave learns that his words, gestures and actions — whether as a friend or colleague or as a leader exerting authority — have a tremendous and lasting impact on others. No surprise to anyone reading You Have More Influence Than You Think, Cornell Professor Vanessa Bohns’ essential new book on the often-underappreciated influence we have on others in our daily lives. I loved this book and the important learnings on the simple power of compliments, the basic human fear of rejection, and the potential we all have for making a difference when it matters. As President Dave says in one of the best lines of the movie, “You really don’t know how much you can do until you stand up and decide to try.”
With all of my “influence,” then, I recommend that you watch the movie and read these insightful new books. Hmm … I feel more powerful already.
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.