The Trumped-up Story of Power
In a previous LinkedIn post, we had discussed that as a culture, we are apparently not the only people duped by narcissistic leaders. “While narcissists may look like good leaders, according to a new study by University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at leading”. As published in the journal of Psychological Science, “because narcissistic individuals are particularly skilled at radiating an image of a prototypically effective leader, they tend to emerge as leaders in group settings. But despite people’s positive perceptions of narcissists, when it comes to performance, narcissists actually inhibit information exchange between group members and thereby negatively affect group performance.”
In today’s blog considering the state of our nation in both business and political management, we want to add to that yet another of the dark triad traits; Machiavellianism “It is much safer to be feared than loved,” writes Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, his classic 16th-century treatise exemplifying manipulation and occasional cruelty as the best means to power. In the same spirit we have had many more recent business leaders, philosophers and believer alike within a 500 year span, such as Jack Welsh, whom in his Four type Model of Managers states: “Type 4 (the manger who delivers results but does not live by values espoused by the organization) is the toughest call of all: the manager who doesn’t share the values, but delivers the numbers. This type is the toughest to part with because organizations always want to deliver and to let someone go who gets the job done is yet another unnatural act. But we have to remove these Type 4s because they have the power, by themselves, to destroy the open, informal, trust-based culture we need to win today and tomorrow”.
Robert Greene’s national bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power, make Machiavelli’s’ ideas seem like child’s play. Greene’s book, is pure Machiavelli. Here are a few of his 48 laws:
Law 3, Conceal Your Intentions.
Law 6, Court Attention at All Costs.
Law 12, Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victims.
Law 15, Crush Your Enemy Totally.
Law 18, Keep Others in Suspended Terror.
Furthermore, a 2004 Harvard Business Review article by George Stalk Jr. and Rob Lachenauer states: “winners in business play rough and don’t apologize for it”. In fact, in their article titled Hardball: Five killer strategies for trouncing the competition, the authors make reference to three Organizations: Dell, Toyota and Walmart, clearly stating that the way they have achieved their success has not been “quite kosher”. However, nevertheless they stay on their course supporting their claim that in order to be the epitome of corporate success, organizations have to play “hardball” like the trio above.
Several decades ago, as a leader of our nation, Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was famously to “speak softly and carry a big stick“. Which technically, refers to practicing strategy and diplomacy rather than showing your hand at all times. Today, Trump’s is “carry that big stick and be very loud’. Meaning, no need to beat around the bush, but rather be controversial and unaffected by criticism, get to the point, show them you mean business and win at all costs. Guided by centuries of Machiavellian advice like the above, many have come to believe that attainment of power requires force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. In fact, a larger percentage of our society assumes that positions of power demand this kind of conduct; that to run effectively, we need leaders who are willing and able to use power abusively.
Well, a new science of power would reveal that this is not further from the truth. In fact, the use of power is most effective, when it’s used responsibly. Individual(s) whom are accustomed to being connected and engaged with the needs and interests of others, are most trusted and hence most influential. The many years of research studying power and leadership suggests that empathy and Emotional Intelligence are vastly more important to the attainment and exercise of power than force, deception, or terror. This research debunks myths that misinform about what constitutes real power, and how it is really obtained and used.
So what is it about the position of power that becomes all about winning and not necessarily about achieving the greater good? Studies show that once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. For instance, studies have found that people given power in experiments are more likely to rely on stereotypes when judging others, and they pay less attention to the characteristics that define those other people as individuals. Predisposed to stereotype, they also judge others’ attitudes, interests, and needs less accurately. One survey found that high-power professors made less accurate judgments about the attitudes of low-power professors than those low-power professors made about the attitudes of their more powerful colleagues. Power imbalances may even help explain the finding that older siblings don’t perform as well as their younger siblings on theory-of-mind tasks, which assess one’s ability to construe the intentions and beliefs of others.
Power even prompts less complex legal reasoning in Supreme Court justices. A study led by Stanford psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld compared the decisions of U.S. Supreme Court justices when they wrote opinions endorsing either the position of a majority of justices on the bench—a position of power—or the position of the vanquished, less powerful minority. Sure enough, when Gruenfeld analyzed the complexity of justices’ opinions on a vast array of cases, she found that justices writing from a position of power crafted less complex arguments than those writing from a low-power position.
Hence, it seems, the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power. In order to answer the question above, we must first clarify the definition of power. I particularly like the way power is defined in the science of psychology because it applies across relationships, contexts, and cultures. In psychological science, power is defined as one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism. This definition de-emphasizes how a person actually acts, and instead stresses the individual’s capacity to affect others.
This brings us to the third trait of the Dark Triad, psychopathy. There is a wealth of evidence, which clearly demonstrates that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, or to avoid looking at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in a hostile and humiliating fashion. Surveys of organizations find that some typical rude behavior such as shouting, using profanities, or shaming type of criticism are most often acts of individuals in positions of power.
Research by Dacher Keltner has found that many individuals with power tend to behave like patients with damaged orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the brain’s frontal lobes behind the eye sockets); A neurological condition causing overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Psychopaths display lack of empathy and socially inappropriate behavior in addition to harmful forms of aggression.
When separated into traits as we have done here, the use of power as we have demonstrated here, doesn’t look that appealing. However, in society, we have had many examples of “powerful” people with the ENTJ personality type known as “the commander” who have been very “successful” at what they were tasked to do because they had a strong following of believers; Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Jeffery Dahmer, Winston Churchill, Jack Welsh, Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart. But why are these personality types, which may normally look appalling given power? We believe the answer lies in the fact that as humans we are attracted to controversy or radicalism even if it’s not good for us. The most “influential” leaders as mentioned above, armed with their manipulation, thirst for power, and lack of empathy, are often found reinforcing ideals for mockery and anger during times of mass weakness and despair. Only this type of leader is able to fulfill a tribe’s hunger for power because they bring with them a false sense of security. This serves a symbiotic relationship for the leader as well because the surrender of power by the followers, feeds the narcissism, machiavillianism and psychopathy of the leader that much more. It serves as a cyclical infinite process.
Although as humans we naturally strive for power, those with the above traits thirst for it in an insatiable way and if the environment calls for it, they are in the most desirable habitat to become more and more powerful. In the famed Stanford Prison Experiment, psychologist Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned Stanford undergraduates to act as prison guards or prisoners—an extreme kind of power relation. The prison guards quickly descended into the purest forms of power abuse, psychologically torturing their peers, the prisoners. Similarly, anthropologists have found that cultures where rape is prevalent and accepted tend to be cultures with deeply entrenched beliefs in the supremacy of men over women.
So when Jack Welsh was typifying his managers, he wasn’t necessarily referring to their work ethics but rather to their personality types. In a recent study on representative German businesses, narcissism was positively linked to salary, while Machiavellianism was positively linked to leadership level and career satisfaction. These associations were still significant even after controlling for the effects of demographics, job tenure, organization size, and hours worked.
Previously, an impressive 15-year longitudinal study found that individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics gravitated towards the top of the organizational hierarchy and had higher levels of financial attainment. In line with those findings, according to some estimates, the base rate for clinical levels of psychopathy is three times higher among corporate boards than in the overall population. This is also consistent with earlier conceptualizations of psychopathy among businessmen.
Instead of succumbing to the Machiavellian worldview—which unfortunately leads us to select Machiavellian leaders—we must promote a different model of power, one rooted in social intelligence, responsibility, and cooperation.
“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said the British historian Lord Acton. Based on what we know now, this is not entirely a myth. Power encourages individuals to act on their own whims, desires, and impulses. But thankfully new scholarship is bringing fresh subtlety to psychologists’ understanding, clarifying that power doesn’t have to corrupt everyone because it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. In fact, for some people, power seems to bring out their best. In a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, DeCelles and her co-authors found people’s sense of “moral identity”, the degree to which they thought it was important to their sense of self to be “caring,” “compassionate,” “fair,” “generous” shaped their exercise and response to power. Among the 195 subjects, while primed to think of themselves as powerful, the people with low moral-identity scores grabbed 7.5 points—and those with high moral-identity scores took only about 5.5. In other words, with the high moral identity group, power led them to take a broader, more communally centered perspective.
Another experiment involving adults found a similar relationship between moral identity, ethical behavior and innate aggressiveness. Assertive people who scored low on the moral-identity scale were more likely to say they’d cheated their employer in the past week than more passive types with similar moral-identity scores. But among those with high moral-identity scores, the assertive people were less likely to have cheated. In sum, the study found, power doesn’t corrupt; it heightens pre-existing ethical values.
So, in practicing power and surrendering it, it is imperative that we are ever vigilant against the corruptive influences of power and it’s ability to distort our views of humility and treatment of others. The goals is also remain critical in challenge myths about power, which persuade us to choose the wrong kinds of leaders and to tolerate gross abuses of power.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Would you say that Trump’s proclamation Patriotic Day of Devotion, which was made official on Monday, and previously uttered by Kim Jong-un in speeches to his 1.2 million-strong military and members of the ruling Korean Workers’ party echoes those of Dark Triad Leaders prior?