Power tends to corrupt

And absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Yada, yada …

Three things about this quote:

  1. It’s usually misquoted by leaving out the “tends to,” without which it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
  2. Nobody argues against it.
  3. We know that it only affects other people.

The reason for number three is that we possess superior insight and such elevated moral character so that we can detect and avoid sycophancy, as in the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. People tell us the truth, not simply what we want to hear.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been giving Boyd-themed presentations to senior leaders when one, usually the most senior, cuts in with “Well, that’s all fine and good, but it can’t happen here.”

I’m invariably torn between the need to keep this gig going and wanting to smirk back with “Oh really? Show me.” Because the fact is that unless you have taken specific measures to ensure that you’re being told the truth (Oh, really?), then you’re being told what you want to hear. It’s so common that in the Navy, so I’m told, they even have a name for it, “driving the bridge.”

Even if you have taken such measures, how do you know they’re working?  Could you demonstrate it to me?  To your board? Now here’s the depressing part: Even if you’re trying to observe dispassionately, you’re fighting your own biology. If you’re in charge, your brain is simply not wired for you to discern whether you’re being told the truth. As author Jerry Useem relates in an article in the July / August issue of The Atlantic, “Power Causes Brain Damage,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/

Subjects under the influence of power, [UC Berkeley Psychology Prof Dacher Keltner] found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

The cause is physiological:

And when [Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario] put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

This ability to read people is, of course, critical in knowing whether you’re being told the truth.

What’s the solution? Probably mitigation would be a better word.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Recognize the problem
  • Truly accept that it will happen to you
  • Develop outside sources of feedback who aren’t depending on you for paycheck or promotion
  • Don’t cling to power — make your contributions, then get out before it’s too late.


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8 thoughts on “Power tends to corrupt

  1. Chet,

    I’ll take the other side of this question, representing the devil.

    First, this kind of research is both notorious for replication failures and being loaded with hidden value judgements. Much like the history professor who declares that Alexander the Great was mentally ill because he conquered the world (the history professor being a model of well-balance sanity because he had not conquered the world).

    Second, I suggest thinking twice before saying that any of our hard-wired behavior is a “problem”. It might be, or it might be optimum in non-obvious ways. Let’s take two of those “problems”: lower empathy and higher risk tolerance.

    As someone who has had leadership posts of a small sort — such as Boy Scout Troop leader and Council leader — both of those look like good things. Leadership brings scrutiny — and criticism — from the group far more intense than most people ever experience.

    The attention of the group can — and often does — paralyze people. The higher risk-tolerance might help offset set. People often wilt under the criticism. Lower empathy helps prevent that.

    Also, high levels of empathy can be painful for leaders. Leadership means making decision that hurt people. Saying “yes” is fun. Saying “no” is painful, and excruciating to those with strong empathy. Criticising followers and subordinates is part of the job, and high empathy makes that more difficult. Firing people is painful for all but sociopaths.

    My guess is that successful leadership results from a balance of factors. There is no one recipe for successful leadership, any more than there is for a cake.

    Note that Google’s data intensive research produced a somewhat similar “master recipe” for successful managers, which looks to me to be equally bogus. To great applause, like all management fads.

    NYT: “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss”

    BI: “8 Habits Of Highly Effective Google Managers”

    • Fabius,

      Thanks. Interesting, if not unexpected.

      Do you have any evidence that this particular research is not replicable? And “empathy,” as I interpret their use of the term, is more like Fingerspitzengefuhl, that is, an ability to sense an unfolding situation. In this case, the situation includes whether the other person is telling you what you want to hear (“see things from the other person’s point of view.”) The fact that it’s painful for some leaders is irrelevant.

      As for Google, you’re obviously correct in doubting management fads, but do you have any evidence that this particular approach is “bogus”? What about it struck you that way?

      • Chet,

        You caught my sloppy reply. I should have said “I recommend caution about this kind of research, due to its high rates of replication failure.” These bubbles come and go. Excitement, clickbait stories, widespread adoption, failure to accomplish much, replication failure, the books into the dustbin, time for a new fad.

        As for the Google study, that’s another long reply. I don’t want to bomb the thread with a new subject. In brief (very very brief), it’s absurd. —

        Consider cake recipes as a class. Rank the ingredients in them (all of them, in aggregate) by importance. What is the utility of this list to someone — of any experience — making a cake?

      • You raise a good point: Don’t take any of this as gospel, particularly as a lot of published research is, as you point out, not replicable. What you may find are parts for your snowmobiles (for me, the physiology). Test them yourself.

        As I understand it, you didn’t find anything “bogus” in the Google piece. You just have problems with the approach. I agree, but don’t get caught up by the listing and ranking of the “8 habits.” (Boyd would share your feelings about that, I can assure you even without my ouija board). What’s interesting to me is the shift in their Schwerpunkt to more of a “People-Ideas-Hardware” approach, and yes, there is an order there, even if there isn’t one in the idealized universe of all (does this mean “all conceivable”?) cake recipes.

      • Chet,

        “As I understand it, you didn’t find anything “bogus” in the Google piece”

        My comment was sloppy, but not *that* sloppy. I said it was bogus because I consider it to be bogus. I just gave one point of rebuttal, an objection that was brief. Here’s another: the methodology is a classic example of garbage in – garbage out. GIGO (a point for those of you playing BuzzWord BINGO).

        Google’s researchers copied a successful method used to extract meaning from “big data” BINGO!). IBM’s Avicenna is being fed large databases of radiology scans, doctor’s patient evaluations and histories — to learn how to become (eventually) a radiologist. Google Translate learns languages by reading books. Hard data in – useful software out.

        But Google’s management guru software was fed much more varied, subjective, and lower quality material. For example, nobody familiar with manager evaluations can seriously regard them as hard data. Assuming the result has any validity without rigorous testing (not just the success stories sold by gurus and patent medicine quacks) is faith-based management (SOP at B-schools).

        “don’t get caught up by the listing and ranking of the 8 habits”

        That’s the equivalent of giving a recipe to a cook but saying “don’t get caught up in the list of ingredients and specific instructions.”

        It’s presented as a recipe to Google staff and readers of those articles. Without the rank-ordered list ( a recipe for manager success), what’s left but yet another set of management aphorisms?

        In another several hundred works I could explain why the Google super-data advice is worse than useless. But I whine when people give post-length comments on the FM website, so I’ll not do it here.

        “Boyd would share your feelings about that,”

        I guessed that was so. Thank you for confirming it.

      • Without the rank-ordered list ( a recipe for manager success), what’s left but yet another set of management aphorisms?

        I answered this in my last comment. Don’t know how to make it any simpler. Sorry.

  2. In briefings Boyd would emphasize constantly “observing” from every possible facet as countermeasure to orientation (and/or confirmation) bias).

    Boyd also in presentations talks about cultivating independent sources for information … he references this in “Organic Design for Command and Control”, pg.28 “My use of ‘legal eagle’ and comptroller at NKP” … sort of a version of trust but verify. NKP reference gone 404, but lives on at wayback machine

    Claims that heterogeneous groups being more productive than homogeneous groups might be considered another flavor of this.

    There is case of somebody from IBM research who went to head up research at a different company …. he mentioned missing having multiple of the smartest people in the world in a room for discussions …. but it was lot easier coming to consensus with only one of the smartest people in the world in the room (if there was more than one of the smartest people in the world holding significantly different positions, it might be impossible to come to consensus).

  3. I think the phenomenon may also be linked to the similar tendency for (some, and many) lottery jackpot and prize winners to go through thier winning fortunes, and be left with little to show for it.

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