!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: The Paradox of Power

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Paradox of Power

As the US presidential campaign grinds on, it seems useful to consider what we know about how leaders who are effective exercise their power. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at Berkeley, published an article in Greater Good Magazine that provides an overview of what research reveals concerning this question.

Keltner talks about the "paradox of power":
... a new science of power has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it's used responsibly, by people who are attuned to and engaged with the needs and interests of others. Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.

This research debunks longstanding myths about what constitutes true power, how people obtain it, and how they should use it. But studies also 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. This presents us with the paradox of power: The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

The power paradox requires that we be ever vigilant against the corruptive influences of power and its ability to distort the way we see ourselves and treat others.1
Keltner's short article is well worth reading. He refutes several myths, including the myth that Machiavellian types are the most effective in exercising power:
It is not the manipulative, strategic Machiavellian who rises in power. Instead, social science reveals that one's ability to get or maintain power, even in small group situations, depends on one's ability to understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence — reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions — prevails over social Darwinism.
Thus, essential skills would-be leaders should cultivate include exactly the aforementioned areas — conflict resolution, negotiation, team-building.

As for resolving the power paradox ("What people want from leaders — social intelligence — is what is damaged by the experience of power"), Keltner recommends learning about the qualities leaders should have (see above) and rejecting irresponsible leaders, "who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force." Conversely, when in a leadership position — whether in government, in business, in a non-profit organization, or at home — a person should strive conscientiously to exercise the qualities that are the marks of responsible leadership.

1 The nature of social intelligence is discussed in this earlier post.


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