The Perils of Unchecked Power

Peacock Crop. By Steve Wilde =
Peacock Crop. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilde.

Hubris is a curse that causes great people to fail.  If you want to become exceptional, you must see this problem coming and protect yourself from its ravaging effects. And if you want to help others to be great, you must speak truth to power as an act of civic duty.

It comes by many names and appears in many fields.  For history buffs this would be Adolf Hitler’s “victory disease” when, after a string of victories, he recklessly chose to invade Russia.  It’s the tale of Oedipus Rex who accidentally destroys himself by arrogantly trying to out-smart the gods.  Shakespeare’s King Lear divides his realm based on flattery and ignores sincere emotions. The problem is timeless and cuts across cultures.  It’s an eternal human problem which remains unsolved.

So of course, now is the time for neuroscientists and journalists to see if they can figure it out.

In an article at the Atlantic.com from July 2017, Jerry Useem asks whether power causes brain damage.  The correct answer is, no it does not.  But it gets close.

Useem references the work of a neuroscientist named Sukhvinder Obhi from McMaster University who did research on neural pathways responsible for “mirroring.”  Mirroring is what happens when we observe the behaviour of others, such as the squeezing of a rubber ball.  Mirroring activates those parts of the brain that we would engage if we ourselves were squeezing a ball.  Obhi found that people with power had a low-functioning mirroring process. Those with less power were otherwise normal.

I’m moderately skeptical about this research because I think that people with personality disorders often self-select into positions of power. It might be that the context of power causes people to become unsympathetic. But it might also be that the unsympathetic are more likely to achieve power. We would need to disentangle multiple causes of the problem, and some research has attempted to look at just that.  The findings are mixed and contradictory.

In one of the studies advanced by Useem, the researchers attempt to identify a specific “hubris syndrome.”  That study is entitled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?  A Study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Over the Last 100 Years.”  By David Owen and Jonathan Davidson.  Brain, Volume 132, May 2009, pp 1396-1406.

Owen and Davidson propose 14 clinical features that identify hubris syndrome.  However, their paper is mostly a circular exercise in categorization, as the clinical features that they identify have overlaps with narcissism and antisocial disorders.  The authors also spend significant time trying to differentiate between hubris syndrome from those behaviours attributable to fully-fledged mental illness or the effects of substance abuse (be it prescription drugs, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drugs).  Owen and Davidson struggled to come up with a clear diagnosis of hubris in leadership because most of the big fish were either bonkers or tanked.

In an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley notes a variety of studies showing that power is a predictor of rude and law-breaking antics;

…whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles… always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time… Surveys of employees in 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.

… Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.

And we know from other research that uncivil workplace behaviour causes disengagement by employees and the customers who see it.

Keltner names a number of reliable remedies to the corrupting influences of power.  “The first step is developing greater self-awareness.”  The simple act of identifying that power makes you feel energized and omnipotent – and at risk of rash behaviour – goes a long way towards self-improvement.  Keltner argues that when we recognize these feelings “…we’re less likely to make irrational decisions inspired by them.”  The same goes for negative feelings of frustration, that phenomenon when people say “don’t you know who I am?”  The cutting retort is, “Do you yourself know who you are?”  It’s always a thought worth considering.

Kelter proposes a variety of practices that remedy hubris. Mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, and generosity are all big players, and he offers specific tactics. Formal efforts like listening closely, expressing concern, delegating responsibility, and sending thank-you notes are not just courtesies.  They are proper vehicles for unlocking the powers of empathy and positive psychology in the mind of the leader.

The most shrewd move a leader can make is to cultivate self-awareness and a concern for others.  It’s not so much that the minions adore this performance.  It’s that a leader needs to become this kind of person on the inside in order to be great.

But it only works if they care.  So, for the ambitious, your orders are to care.

And if you don’t have power, make them care.

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