Stop Your Power Trip Before It Starts (HBR)

Everything in moderation. My late father, a physician, always emphasized that to his patients. While Dad was focusing more on what people ate or drank, he could easily have been talking about how people behave.

I was reminded of Dad’s advice when I read Jonah Lehrer’s fine essay in the Wall Street Journal discussing the “paradox of power,” a syndrome that turns people in authority into dictators. Lehrer quotes Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, who says, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools.”

Executives who engage in abusive or coercive behavior of their subordinates may be showing that Lord Acton‘s statement — “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — is not just a maxim, but reality. Leaders can get into trouble by subconsciously thinking it they have no limits on their power, even though they’d never say such a thing out loud. Such thinking is all too often reinforced by direct reports who subordinate themselves in order to curry favor with their bosses.

So what is a well-intentioned leader to do? My advice is to regularly reflect on these three questions.

Click here to read more:

First posted on HBR on 10/18/2010