“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…” – John Dalberg-Acton
Power has had a bad reputation for some time. Those that hold power are often treated with suspicion, especially in western democracies where the word ‘power’ has widely become a synonym for domination.
We all know the stories of badly behaved kings and queens acting with impunity and without apparent regard for their subjects. We also know that they eventually met their end at the hands of the mob or the blade of the guillotine.
The famous utterance, ‘Let them eat cake!’ may be dubiously ascribed to Marie Antoinette, wife of France’s King Louis XVI, but it perfectly encapsulates the divergence from everyday reality that typified the monarchy and all it symbolized.
In those same western countries, of course, most remaining monarchies are figureheads and celebrities divested of any genuine authority. But, does that mean they no longer have any power? Power accrues for many reasons and in many forms. Western monarchs, for example, are still generally very wealthy with large asset portfolios – doesn’t that grant them an unusual weight in power dynamics?
The kings of the modern world could be seen those at the pinnacle of government, working at the behest of the people and ostensibly acting in their favour. But, in effect, the real kings are those holding the reigns of corporate business. It is there that power has collected in disproportional ways. This is the 1%.
Such a concentration of power can be dangerous. Every week media reports include a new story of unethical behavior by executives, often with significant costs to the business, its reputation, its bottom line and, consequently, the job security of its employees.
What is going on in such situations? Why do those at the top of the hierarchy so regularly act with such pronounced self-interest?
Research by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that people who enjoy power and privilege tend to display traits that prioritize the interests of others, such as empathy and collaboration. The 20 years of Keltner’s study reveals that such power does not even need to be permanent – simply feeling powerful as a temporary state is enough to reduce the inclination towards selfless behavior.
Further research led by Adam Galinsky, Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, shows that high-power individuals anchor too heavily on their own perspectives and demonstrate a diminished ability to correctly perceive others’ perspectives.
It also seems that continued access to power has the potential to trigger a neurological imbalance. As the Atlantic reports, Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, has discovered that the brains of powerful people reflect lower activity of mirror neurons. “Mirroring” – the human brain’s ability to “feel” the same experience as someone it observes – is what is happening when you see someone else stub their toe and you wince. It is also a cornerstone of empathy.
So, power can stunt the brain’s ability to activate experiences of connection, compassion, and togetherness. The stereotype of the money-grabbing, self-serving executive is perhaps accurate on the surface, but such behavior is not purely motivated by poor morals and low emotional intelligence. It has a biological component too.
Knowing this allows leaders to develop checks and balances that keep them grounded and in touch with those they lead. Leadership and power are not synonymous, but they often correspond. Many business and organizational structures, especially hierarchical ones, pool power around key positions of leadership. Avoiding the corruption of this responsibility requires active engagement.
Here are three things leaders can do to prevent themselves from becoming self-oriented versus other-oriented:
1. Find a jester
The jester, or the trickster, is a primary archetype found in mythologies throughout the world. His or her role is to speak truth to power, to tell the ruler that which everyone else is too afraid to say. This relationship is a safety catch for the king or queen, holding them back from developing inflated ideas of their own importance.
Every leader needs to have a truth-teller to rely on, someone who can be trusted to be honest and willing to compassionately deflate the leader’s ego to a manageable size.
2. Remember your failures
In a self-esteem loving, success-obsessed culture we are commonly taught to focus on our strengths and successes. Though there may be value in building a positive mindset, balancing that with some memories of past failures can bring some healthy perspective to one’s self-image, reducing any tendency towards grandeur.
Don’t get wrapped up in negative stories, but recall the times when things have not gone well and remember that you are wonderfully, fallibly human.
3. Ask a second question
The easiest way to become other-oriented is to be other-oriented. That is, become curious about other people and their experiences. Ask genuine questions that give you insight into life in another pair of shoes. Always aim for at least two questions – the first is usually at the superficial level, the ‘How are you?’ variety. The second question is usually a little deeper, an invitation for the other person to share a bit more.
Once you’ve practiced sincere questioning you will find it almost impossible to be self-centered. There’s simply no space for “me, me, me” in a world that you see as “me, you, us.”