By Dan Fine, Management Consultant at Hive Business
There was a captivating edition of the Making Sense with Sam Harris podcast in May. He interviewed the psychologist Adam Grant, and early on in their two hour chat Grant made a profound point about leaders and power. He remembered seeing the famous “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” quote on his teacher’s wall at school and feeling that it didn’t sit well.
He reasoned that power puts temptations in your path, and it can certainly corrupt, but more often it reveals. As it happens there is now a body of evidence in psychology that supports this perspective. But Grant gave Harris a perfect anecdote instead, a comparison of two lawyers in public office: the first was threatened to be disbarred in the first case he tried, the judge saying, “I doubt you have the ethical qualifications to practise law”; the second was so ethical that he refused a client because he thought him guilty. They were respectively Nixon and Lincoln. Power didn’t change either’s approach.
If it’s true that people corrupt power rather than the other way around, this has serious implications for leadership. If you are promoting someone in your business to an influential role like business manager, for example, even if they are a wonderful team member, be mindful that you haven’t seen what they’re really like yet. This is not a negative thing, they may flourish with the new responsibility with their noble character shining through, equally you could discover you had a feeble sycophant amongst your ranks. You won’t know till the power reveals them.
More importantly though, if you are thinking of stepping into a leadership position, or you are already in one, but you don’t yet have clarity on what your values are, there is danger. You will be making decisions based off drivers that you have no visibility or understanding of. You might be OK for a while, but you are bound to get into trouble in the end.
This is about your strategy as a leader, and that has to be anchored to your drivers otherwise it simply won’t stand up over time. For example, imagine that one of your key values is fairness, and this leads you to believe everyone in your business should end up with the same reward no matter what they produce.
That could be a disastrous business strategy, but it’s going to be worse if you aren’t even conscious of how it’s affecting your decisions. To begin with though, would you even be looking to acquire a business, grow it, make it profitable then flip it if you were aware of how important fairness is to you? (Clearly this is not the only conclusion ‘fairness’ could lead to.)
Another possibility: you are pursuing your business venture for prestige. If this is guiding your decisions, what are you prepared to do to maintain that prestige? Could it lead to unethical behaviour down the road? And if it isn’t such a healthy long term driver, perhaps it needs to be monitored and occasionally checked. To keep your strategy cogent you will need that visibility on your base drivers. Don’t worry, we all have them.
Our leadership course pretty much exclusively focuses on unearthing your values because this piece of work is critical to your long term financial success. There is nothing more valuable at the outset than knowing what power is going to reveal about you. I’m running another leadership course in Falmouth, Cornwall on October 24th to 27th with Jonathan Fine if you’d like to join us. For more information email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.