Power: The Dark Side of Leadership

I have a little confession to make. I find power to be delicious.

For most of my life I have worked as a kind of modern-day impresario. I produced events and media, everything from promotional videos to chamber music concerts to recording sessions with full size symphony orchestras. I was a one-man HR office; I had to hire videographers, graphic designers, actors, audio engineers, composers, musicians, editors, you name it. And I will be the first to admit, when you have power to hire and fire, and you have a budget to spend on vendors who are dying for your business, life takes on a patina of extraordinary pleasantness. When you have power, people who would normally ignore you suddenly become your new best friend. They hang on your every word and tell you what you want to hear. When this happened to me, I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Now before talking about this further, I have a question. As someone who philosophizes, speaks, and coaches on issues of management, I try to keep up with the latest, and I read various books and articles on the topic. There seems to be no end of management advice out there, so my question is, why is it that, other than a few books by Machiavelli, I never see any articles about the joys, temptations, and potential pitfalls of simply possessing power, which is the very essence of being in a leadership/management role?

I suspect that at some point I will get a very stringent lesson in why no one else talks about it in public, but until then, here goes.

The first time I had some real power, I was totally inexperienced in its use, and I was totally unprepared for its narcotic effect. I loved the way people who wanted my business would give me “strokes” of sycophantic attention. Being not totally stupid, I knew that this largesse of positive social interaction was conditional on my continuing to have power, and so I became very eager to consolidate my power. I took steps to make sure I would hold on to it as much as possible. I found myself wanting more and more of it. For a while, this goal, of having power purely for the sake of having power, eclipsed my memory of my original purpose, i.e., why other people had given me power in the first place.

It took me a little bit of time, reflection and hard lessons to get used to this aspect of power possession. Learning to handle it was like trying to go on a diet in a chocolate factory.

Once I recovered my wits, I found I actually had to be proactive in training people how to respond to my possession of power. Everyone has a set auto-pilot approach to dealing with people in power over them, and I found I had to endlessly counter that energy. For example, I had to repeatedly train my vendors that their primary purpose was not to meet my many infantile needs for attention. I had to endlessly remind them to focus on serving my customers, even if that meant ignoring me altogether. For most of them, this was a totally new idea, and many of them never truly believed that I meant it. They had seen how other people with power had behaved in the past, so they always hedged their bets by keeping my apples polished.  This drained energy from doing actual work.  I was always conflicted about this. It was inefficient, and yet I still liked it.

The many ways in which one person having power over another affects relationships and systems is an awfully large topic. Too large for a single article. So the point I want to make is this:

Power is seductive, it is addictive, it is delicious, and when you get power, remaining objective and keeping your wits about you is not easy. It requires restraint and discipline. Everywhere you look, you see evidence of people not knowing how to handle power. Most of us have a painful memory of someone who once had power over us abusing that power. Every day we see people with power using it in ways we disagree with. And even more vexing are people who have power but are afraid to use it, or just don’t know what to do with it. Need I even mention elected officials? It all gets very emotional in a hurry. And that is my point.

Management and leadership philosophy is, more or less, a guide to the use of power. We all have great ideas of how things ought to be, but there are reasons why people in power don’t always do things the way we want. Some are quite logical, some are selfish. Power also has limits to what it can do, no matter how much of it you have.

The purpose of this article is not to offer any quick solutions or a list of tips and tricks– such an approach would fail to recognize the size and complexity of the issue. The purpose is to say we must recognize and discuss the many temptations and emotional distortions that the possession of power causes, and how we are going to deal with how possession of power affects the imperfect beings who we ask to wield it. (This is not a new idea– the United States Constitution is mostly about managing the temptations of power– and look at how endlessly difficult that has been.)

I am eager to teach the introductory class, although it might sound more like a 12 step program: “Hello, my name is Justin, and I am addicted to the thrill of having power.”

(About the Author: Justin Locke spent 18 years playing bass in the Boston Pops, and his musical plays are performed all over the world.  As an author, speaker, and coach, he shares a pragmatic artistic approach to personal growth, “people skills,” and managing “top performers.” For more, visit his website at www.justinlocke.com.)

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photo credit: MeckiMac via photopin cc

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