Exceptional Leaders and the Paradox of Power

True power requires modesty and empathy, not force and coercion, argues Dacher Keltner, Ph.D (professor of psychology at U.C. Berkley.) But what people want from leaders—social intelligence—is what is damaged by the experience of power.

That is the opening paragraph of an article written by Keltner entitled The Paradox of Power. Throughout the article Keltner describes his research that pits the Machiavellian approach to power and leadership to what I would describe as more of a Servant Leadership philosophy. The Machiavellian approach suggests that power is strategically acquired and sustained through force, coercion, manipulation and deception. The Servant Leadership philosophy is supported by new research that has revealed that power is given to those who use it responsibly and who are attuned to, and engaged with the needs and interests of those they lead.

The research further supports the statement made by the British Historian, Lord Acton, that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Something potentially dangerous happens to the psyche when one is placed in or “earns” a position of power. The tendency is toward impulsivity, aggression, flirtatious behavior, lack of critical analysis and judgment, and a complete lack of consideration for others. This tendency is often displayed in rudeness, interrupting others, speaking out of turn and harsh teasing of others. And it is these behaviors, though often subtle, that are most frequently sited as the source of leader derailment.

To quote Keltner “My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.”

The Paradox: Power is given (by their followers) to those who are best attuned to the needs and interests of others. However, power, once acquired, tends to damage one’s focus on acting in just such a socially intelligent manner.

The challenge for the Exceptional Leader is to recognize this tendency for power to corrupt even them, and to focus their attention on ensuring that they are not behaving in a Machiavellian manner. This is where an Executive Coach can be especially helpful, and it is why over 50% of Fortune 500 corporations are utilizing executive coaches as a part of their leadership development strategies today.

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