Power tripping

Central Park Spring © Natalia Martinez

“The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice.” – M. Gandhi

A friend sent me The Power Trip, the Saturday Essay for the August 14th edition of the Wall Street Journal, and it struck a nerve with me. Disclaimer: as a student of Organizational Psychology, I might find this topic more interesting than the average person!

The synopsis is: On the road to power, us young ‘uns are rewarded for positive traits like extroversion, energy, honesty, etc. But then, THEN, once we achieve positions of power, a majority of us systematically become corrupted by the very fruit we were jumping to grab all along. This is the paradox of power, i.e. “the very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest, and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless, and rude.” Being more risk-acceptant and even dabbling in overconfidence can be a good (and profitable) trait when it leads to innovation and positive change, but can quickly turn awry when they lead to flirting with the interns, bending the rules, stealing company money.

The good news, according to Lehrer, is that Machiavellian habits are wrong and power CAN be accumulated by treating others how you would like to be treated (in other words, being nice). The bad news, is that being corrupted by power is a documented “incredibly consistent effect” that is comparable to brain damage(!!). Accordingly, people with positions of authority are less able to empathize with others, rely more on stereotypes when making judgments of people, and have an easier time rationalizing ethical deviations. The second half of Lehrer’s article gives some interesting examples of these cases, so I very much recommend giving it a read through.

Let me wrap up here since the article says most of these points better than I can. My short concluding thoughts points are:

a.)   The decisions and situations that most of us interact with usually made by people in power, defined for us by a sometimes disturbingly small group of people. Example: The Supreme Court. If we are to fear this, how do we protect ourselves (other than setting up regulatory boards and Boards of Overseers)?

b.)  As most of us seek out successful career in this decade of our lives, let’s keep in mind that we are under this constant threat of corruption. Now it seems we have to add to our To Do list actively trying to become the kind of leaders, managers, and bosses that we would have liked to have as we made our way up the ladder, and not obnoxious, hubris-brimming, harassing ones. Great.


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