Zoë Routh (pictured below) is a leadership expert and shows leaders and teams struggling with silos and office politics how to work better together. Routh is also the author of People Stuff: Beyond Personality Problems – An Advanced Handbook for Leadership. In this guest post, Routh says uncontrolled power often turns people bad and offers tips on avoiding any unnecessary office disasters…
Power unchecked has a cost. If our recent spate of Royal Commissions is anything to go by, we still have work to do in navigating the perils of power. Both the Royal commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry showcase the disastrous results of power running rampant. Children are abused, customers are hoodwinked. The repercussions are devastating.
Why do good leaders turn bad? Is it a character flaw? A mental deficiency? Dacher Keltner in The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence describes the conundrum this way: “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.” He concludes that “I came to believe that experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behavior.”
It is not necessarily power itself that corrupts, but the brain’s response to it.
Power unleashes a biochemical beast.
Keltner asserts that the power and the capacity to influence feels good in an energising way. He says, power “is accompanied by feelings of enthusiasm, inspiration, and hope, and it is supported by surges of dopamine in the brain.” And dopamine has the feel-good addictive qualities like those of cocaine and can lead to bouts of mania. All this Keltner says can “lead to impulsive, unethical action and delusional thought.”
The brain’s biochemicals may work against us when it comes to dancing with power. Here’s what we need to be mindful of to help avoid power’s corrupting menace.
Trap 1: Hubris
On their way to celebrate a Triumph following a battle victory, Ancient Roman Generals are said to have posted a slave behind them on their chariot as they paraded through the cheering throngs. Their task was to whisper in their ear, “Remember you are mortal.” The intention was to keep the General from falling blind to his own arrogance. It didn’t work for Julius Caesar: believing himself invincible, he failed to heed the warning “Beware the Ides of March”.
The energising aspect of power can lead to delusions of grandeur. Case in point: WeWork’s former CEO Adam Neumann expressed his aspirations, according to Wall Street Journal reporting, of “living forever, becoming the world’s first trillionaire, expanding WeWork to the planet Mars, becoming Israel’s prime minister, and becoming “president of the world”. (Telford, 2019) In the rise to power, Neumann’s perspective was derailed by dopamine.
Trap 2: Control and dominance
Our dopamine-crazed brain becomes concerned about retaining the source of the exhilaration.
Keltner’s research reveals that the energising sensations of power can turn our focus away from others and towards ourselves as we seek more of the dopamine-inducing experiences. This swivel of our gaze cuts off our empathy circuits: we cannot focus on others if we are focused on ourselves.
Desperate to hang on to their feel-good power, and blind to the impact of their actions due to reduced empathy, leaders may turn to any means to hang on to their position. This is when once-great leaders start to bully and manipulate, as Neumann was reported to have done.
Trap 3: Impulsiveness
Keltner’s research findings show that those with high power turn to more selfish, immediately gratifying behaviours like eating impetuously and succumbing to sexual impulses, regardless of the impact on others. Leaders can drag others into this maelstrom. Neumann’s WeWork all staff parties became riotous drug and alcohol infused hedonistic events. Claims of sexual harassment and an unsafe workplace environment ensued.
Power and authority is gained in service to others. To keep our dopamine-saturated brain from corrupting our good intentions, we need to remember one thing: stay focused on others. It’s only in service to the greater good that we can keep our brain away from the perils of power. In serving others, we save ourselves. And it’s worth reciting: we are mortal.