Don’t Gripe Down

Bill Bispeck
5 min readAug 31, 2023

… Or how not to lose Power

Fiction but yet Real Life

From Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan ………..

Scene: June 1944. The platoon is walking through a meadow in France, and discussing their dislike of their current mission to find Private James Ryan, the last surviving son of the Ryan family, and return him safely to his widowed mother in the States.

Private Reiben: Hey Captain, what about you? You don’t gripe at all?

Captain Miller: I don’t gripe to you Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down, always up. You gripe to me. I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that, as a Ranger.

Private Reiben: Well, I’m sorry sir, but ah, let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?

Captain John Miller: Well in that case, I’d say this is an excellent mission sir, with an extremely valuable objective sir, worthy of my best efforts sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan, and I’m willing to lay down my life, and the lives of my men, especially you, Reiben, to ease her suffering.

Private Mellish: He’s good.

Private Caparzo: I love ‘em.

A Parallel in Your World

Can’t you identify with Captain Miller? You know. You’ve been given a directive from higher authority that involves some unpleasant action that must be initiated promptly. Maybe it’s a layoff, another wave of cost cutting, a negative change in employee benefits, or cancellation of a highly desirable project. It could be an instance where the full details of the reasons for the action are too sensitive to widely share, and you cannot reveal all of the considerations that made the decision necessary. You must implement this activity and get the full support of your team in order to be successful. You personally think this is a bad decision, but you have no avenue to pursue to reverse the direction, and you’ve been dreading facing this situation. What do you do?

Leadership Power (1)

The ultimate aim of leadership is to influence others to pursue goals that are in alignment with organizational purposes. Leaders accomplish this through the use of various “power bases” that are available for them to use (see below). Power is the capacity to influence outcomes. One can consider power on an empowerment continuum, where the lowest levels of power strategies achieve compliance through extrinsic motivation (I have to, or else…) with little empowerment, while the highest levels of power achieve compliance through intrinsic motivation (I want to because…) engaging discretionary effort with maximal empowerment in play. Consider these three categories as described by Fairman and McLean:

· Position Power — This is Power-Over others, by virtue of inherent authority.

· Personal Power — This is Power-With, by virtue of influence and recognized knowledge and ability.

· Principle-Center Power — This is Power-Beyond, by virtue of the intrinsic motivation of overarching purposes symbolized by principle-centered personal and organizational mission.

What Happens with Griping

When leaders severely and repeatedly gripe in the presence of followers, what happens? Group members arrive at the conclusion, sometimes unconsciously, that their leader has no influence, and no control over what matters to them. They find themselves perceiving that the leader is a victim of uncontrollable forces, and therefore they, as team members, are victims as well, with little ability to set and achieve meaningful goals for which they can have ownership. They become accustomed to seeing themselves as reactive rather than proactive. They find themselves responding at the last minute to the whims of those in authority above their leader. Their creative capacities are minimally engaged, if at all, and they find themselves fire fighting one crisis, one siege, after another.

Considering the three power bases described above, what does a leader have at their disposal, when they fall into a habit or a pattern of griping down? The answer is, only position power. Compliance with unpleasant mandates is accomplished by obedience to the inherent authority possessed by the leader, which is associated with the leader’s position in the organization. Release of discretionary effort is minimal and the unleashing of creative capacities is blunted.

Why is personal power lost? Personal power (which is based on the information the leader possesses, and their expertise) is lost because the leader is no longer viewed as an expert who can demonstrate first-hand knowledge and experience regarding the challenges the group faces, and they no longer strongly value the leader’s input. Team members might say, “My leader thinks this is a crazy idea, which will fail, and has no clue as to how to make it work for the best, and for us as a team.”

Why is principle-centered power lost? Principle-centered power consists of both referent power and legacy power. Leaders use referent power when they harness team members’ desires to emulate and please them in such a way that organizational purposes are accomplished. Leaders release referent power by articulating, modeling, and symbolizing important principles and values that team members respect and appreciate.

Legacy power is used when leaders build a consensus in the team to commit to leave a legacy, that is, make a lasting difference. Team members might say, “I have no excitement whatsoever about attempting to make a lasting difference here because we are constantly reacting to mandates over which we have no control. Who has time to work on major organizational transformations in this environment?”

Both referent and legacy power are diminished significantly when a leader openly and repeatedly gripes about organizational directives. Disloyalty, and at worst mutiny, are always dishonorable and cause loss of respect. In contrast, a leader always gains respect when demonstrating loyalty and courage in putting the best face on a difficult challenge, and as followers see the leader being respectful and loyal to higher authority.

What Can a Leader Do?

What can a leader do to gain poise and composure in tough situations like this? Many times there’s a need to “blow off steam” but not in the presence of subordinates. Having a peer network inside or outside the organization can provide a confidential sounding board for expressing concerns and disappointments, as well as testing ideas and strategies for going forward. “Business is a contact sport, and the more contacts you have the better off you are.” (2) Regain stability by reaching out to your close contacts and tap into their wisdom and support in difficult circumstances. In extreme situations, a leader may be faced with violating important personal values and principles and is staring at a “crisis of integrity”. In those unusual circumstances the leader has no choice but to leave the organization in the most honorable way possible. Such circumstances are rare. In all other cases, show true grit.


(1) Dr. Marvin Fairman, Dr. Leon McLean, Enhancing Organizational Effectiveness, Joshua Publishing, Lenaxa Kansas, 2004, pp. 40–51.

(2) John Lindsey, CEO, inCite Legal Tech