And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yada, yada …
Three things about this quote:
- It’s usually misquoted by leaving out the “tends to,” without which it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
- Nobody argues against it.
- 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.