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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Power and abuse

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Abraham Lincoln

Usually I end with a quote but this time it's an excellent introduction on the topic of Power. Power is the ability to exercise control over others (what). Power is usually found in leaders (who). Basically power could last from cradle to grave (when). Power is exercised through formal authority, hidden or informally (how). This was easy. More difficult questions are why and where.

I believe that the why and where questions are in the brain (where) and the mind (why). The animal culture clearly shows that there are leaders and followers. The human race mirrors that. That similarity convinces me that leadership is an instinct in the brain. The typically human amoral or evil application of leadership and power, convinces me that the why must be in the mind (thoughts). 

Human lack of morals may have several explanations: genetic, mental defects, or bad parenting. 

A genetic explanation should be visible in other life forms than humans but we don't. Bad parenting (source) may cause bad social behaviour but that is still a long way from a lack of morals. When we talk about bad people we use phrases like freak (NL: "misbaksel") or have a loose screw (NL: "een draadje los") which clearly does not relate to genetics but to the general wiring of the person.

The combination of instinct for leadership (brain) and bad wiring (mind) can have dramatic consequences (e.g., Adolf Hitler, Roman emperor Caligula).

In 2014, TIME Magazine published an article about the professions with most and fewest psychopaths. The outcome was that CEO is the profession with the most psychopaths. Obviously, terminology and definitions become very important in such bold statements. Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterised by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviours such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality. (TIME), (Forbes) and (Fortune)

TIME did an attempt to explain the why question: CEOs require an ability to make objective, clinical decisions divorced from feelings. The absence of a human connection or dealing with feelings appears to be leading. Basically, they don't care about others than themselves or the "greater good".

Almost by definition, leaders must possess several of these psychopathic features. It's the degree and extent that ultimately separates them in good and bad people. My compassion and caring for others could indeed be an obstacle in a CEO role. More relevant is that I never felt the urge from moving from CFO to CEO. Informal power was always enough for me. 

The psychopathic characteristics of (chosen/elected) leaders clearly open a variety of pitfalls for their future downfall (e.g., former IMF President). Ancient rulers never had that problem. I feel that I have also found a more convincing explanation to my February 12 blog on powerful people.

"The true leader serves. Serves people. Serves their best interests, and in doing so will not always be popular, may not always impress. But because true leaders are motivated by loving concern than a desire for personal glory, they are willing to pay the price.” Eugene B. Habecker, from his book The Other Side of Leadership (1987).