How power makes nice bosses turn nasty

The Wall Street Journal just ran an interesting piece called The Power Trip that essentially says ‘nice’ people often rise to power in organizations – and are then corrupted by their position. Contrary to what Machiavelli espoused, it turns out that in today’s society people with good empathy and interpersonal skills often rise to the top.

“People give authority to people that they genuinely like.”

The more troubling part of the article, however, is what tends to happen to these same people when put in positions of power. In short, they lose empathy and their ability to make complex decisions – two of the key attributes that put them in power in the first place.

For those of you who’ve been in positions of authority before, you may recognize some of what this article outlines from your own personal experience.

Loss of empathy? Yeah, you might have experienced it as having to make a ‘tough call’ that really hurt someone who worked for you. It’s about watching out for the bottom line, or putting the mission above people – and sometimes it’s totally necessary. But often as boss it’s easy to put the task ahead of the relationship in an effort to eke out short-term goals. You often find the worst flavor of this behavior accompanied by some equivalent of  “nothing personal; it’s just business.”

Loss of decision clarity? For some bosses, there’s an enormous pressure to have all the answers. Over time and with added authority, we find ourselves valuing being decisive over making the right decision. Often, we end up getting our ego attached to our decisions in the process. On the plus side, we simplify and streamline our decision making processes to deal with the increased flow of decisions. The best bosses do this with a graceful mix of intuition and decentralized decision making authority. In short, they learn how to trust their people. Hiring great people is critical to success here.

The article talks about where unchecked power can lead. Lord Acton beat the authors to the punch in 1887 when he noted that:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Not sure I agree. I’ve met some really good leaders in my life.

What I do agree with, however, is the punchline of this article. Transparency is the key to curbing the corruption that often comes with power.  Transparency is one of the fundamental forces for good in society and something worth injecting in all our institutions.