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Home » Leadership

This business called power

Submitted by on Monday, 12 August 2013One Comment

‘Nearly all men,’ Lincoln once wrote, ‘can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’

Power presents a thorny problem in leadership. Bauer and Erdogan define it (you can read about their six forms of power here). Shakespeare investigated it – first into what happens when a leader gives up power in King Lear, then what happens when a leader goes power crazy in Macbeth, with neither outcome being entirely satisfying from a leader’s perspective.

And now there’s this recent study which is a must-read for all business leaders.

Intent on shedding light on the question of power, a team of psychologists in Canada wanted to find out what happened when a person was either promoted or rose to fame.

Changes in the heart, changes in the head

This-Business-Called-PowerTheir findings make fascinating reading. More power actually rewires the brain, in turn making us less empathetic towards others.

So here’s the rub. Let’s say you are promoted and that promotion makes you less empathetic towards your direct reports. The temptation then arises where you choose to use more coercive power – or force – in Bauer and Erdogan’s definition above – rather than some of the other sources of power at your disposal. An alternative source of power, for example, is referent power, where your followers act not because you force them or they fear you but out of respect.

As a result of your choice, your brain physically rewires!

There are changes in the heart and head for the follower too, as the Learned Helplessness experiments have demonstrated (in a negative context) where coercive power is misused. Coercive power tends to lead to feelings of helplessness, which then are very difficult to mobilise into action.

Bottom line: the more powerful a leader becomes, the more careful he or she needs to be when using power. Sheakespeare’s saying that ‘heavy rests the head that wears the crown’ now carries the burden of scientific proof with it, too.

Power as a doom-loop

The story of the powerful leader misusing his or her power almost always ends up in disaster, as we know. Macbeth’s power, Hitler’s power, Stalin’s power, Saddam Hussein’s power – all coercive – inevitably ended up making it more difficult for their followers to act.

This is because coerced followers are almost completely trapped in a state of fear. The result is that they will not act, even if everything outside is telling them to do so (for an example of this, one needs only take Stalin’s refusal to heed his generals’ warnings of Hitler’s impending attack on Russia. No generals subsequently made any plans to defend the Motherland).

Leadership Training Program Thailand

A doom loop of more coercion by the leader, and more helplessness among followers, then usually takes place, rarely ending happily for either.

In business, one can look at the abject terror inspired in the followers of such people as Dick Fuld, ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap, Robert Maxwell and others. In all these cases, better use of power might actually have saved their bacon!

How can leaders use power more effectively?

This article does not intend to advocate a template for the ‘correct’ use of power. But the science and the stories both surely point towards the value of empowering others.

This is a practice identified as core by Kouzes and Posner from their global research into what followers want from their leaders in The Leadership Challenge Workshop.

For those you you who have been following this blog, their fourth practice is Enabling Others to Act. This means empowering others and reducing feelings of powerlessness in the workplace. By definition, leaders also need to find ways to encourage initiative and autonomy among their followers too. The fear of coercive power usually doesn’t achieve either the emotion or the action described in this leadership practice very well!

There is some good news from the study carried out by the Canadian neuroscientists, and that is that there are ways to overcome the deleterious effect an increase in power has on empathy. 

Coaching and training, they say, can reconnect Heart to Head, and a renewal of empathetic behaviours (perhaps using the Head, Heart, Hand model here?) Not every promotion, then, needs to end in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Gandhi said that the day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.

It’s our belief that it will also know greater leaders.

Talent Technologies offers The Leadership Challenge in Thailand and South-East Asia. If you would like more details on the training programme, please follow the link below.


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