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.
What good can I do with my power? The 17th century Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracian wrote “The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good.” Executives can apply that adage to running the business wisely. As Lehrer notes in his essay, power can free executives to push the organization to innovate. It can also stimulate the leader to look over the horizon to envision new possibilities and act on such possibilities if it will help the business grow and prosper.
What harm can I cause with my power? Executives kid themselves if they avoid thinking of the dark side of power. It is real — and it is easy to employ. Just look at the number of executives who fell from power when they crossed the line by thinking themselves above scrutiny in matters of business etiquette, fiscal prudence or even sexual appropriateness. Face the topic, and think of how power can corrupt yourself and hurt others.
What can I do to stay humble? Leaders need to surround themselves with smart people who are not afraid to assert themselves even — or maybe especially — when it goes contrary to the leader’s ideas. Executives fall into traps by relying on the same people for advice, and too often habits form that whatever the boss says goes. That is not what the leader deserves; he or she needs to be challenged.
“Power,” wrote Woodrow Wilson, “consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.” To do so takes discipline and self-reflection. The questions above are a place to start, and should stimulate soul searching.
How do you keep yourself honest about how you wield power?
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First posted on HBR on 10/18/2010