I first became interested in power when I didn’t have any – I was co-founder of a social enterprise working with homeless people and drug addicts in a northern city. We wanted not only to convince badly-damaged individuals to completely change their lives; but institutions to radically change their policies and their practices towards those most on the edge of society.
We had no money, no legitimacy, no expertise, no control, no authority – just idealism, persuasion and a practical idea or two. We made quite a difference, but I sometimes wondered how much more we could have done if we’d been in charge. I also wonder: if we had been in charge, would we still have wanted things to change so much?
I became fascinated, and at times alarmed by power when in subsequent years I worked alongside some of the world’s most powerful people. Up close, I could see what real power could do – abuses, corruption, greed, hubris, wars and conflict. Also, the peace-building, the laws changed, lives saved, investment in communities, diseases treated and overcome, jobs created, economies grown. And I was able to witness what power does to those who hold it.
Research shows us that power changes us. Things happen to you – as a person, and as an organisation – when you’re powerful:
Power reduces our awareness of constraints and causes us to act more quickly.
Powerful people downplay risks. Power distorts our judgement: it gives us
the illusion of control, even over random events.
Powerful people tend to think more abstractly, favouring the bigger picture
over smaller consequences. Those ‘smaller consequences’ can often mean
We lose empathy when we gain power. We are less likely to take into account
the perspective of others.
We are more likely to make excuses for our own bad behaviour and we are
more likely to judge others harshly.
Power protects and excuses power. We are less likely to face the consequences of our actions. So, we not only take what we want because we’re likely to go unpunished – but also because we intuitively feel we are entitled to it.
We tend to think what we do must be right, because we wouldn’t have got
where we are if we weren’t brilliant.
How people respond to us when we have power over them changes too:
they frequently don’t tell us the truth. Even if we repeatedly say:
“My door is always open”.
Things also happen to you when you are powerless. Studies demonstrate that when someone exerts power over you, you feel worse — worse mood, more stress, more mental exhaustion, more helplessness. You become defensive, risk-averse, and unwilling to speak up. So: there are moral hazards involved – inevitably – in holding and exercising power.
The good news is it can also bring out the best in people. A leader who holds power in the wider interest helps people flourish. It isn’t the case that all power corrupts: but it does heighten pre-existing ethical tendencies. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Any man can stand adversity, but if you really want to test his character, give him power.”
Whilst working with leaders over the last five years, my team and I have found four practices that can help to build responsible leadership and healthier organisations.
Firstly: Active listening and observing
Human error is a symptom of trouble deeper inside the system, but the psychological instinct is to blame individuals. So, build the observation skills and habit to notice errors in the system and when something goes wrong, really focus on the root cause.
Spend time with those who are least powerful in your organisation. They are the ones who must navigate the system and are forced to create workarounds when faced with unrealistic expectations or contradictory instructions and incentives. That’s where the intelligence lies. It can also help you build back up the empathy that’s at risk of being diminished as you get promoted.
Go beyond your own organisation. Put yourself and your teams in meaningful contact with people who experience the world differently. Talk to people who don’t owe their living to you. Seek out people who challenge your assumptions and practices, who won’t fall back on the “things aren’t done that way” response to new ideas.
Almost all organisational disasters are followed by someone saying: “…but I didn’t get time to think”. Take even a small amount of time to regularly reflect – alone and with your team. Five minutes in silence, alone, at the start and end of each day, to reset your priorities. Two minutes silence at the start and end of each meeting, thinking about what matters most.
Answering the question together: “what are we learning?” can build a culture that prefers honesty and progress to blame. It can help balance the decisive or even impulsive tendencies of the powerful, develop a more nuanced view of risk, allow you to consider consequences more fully, and empower others to contribute solutions.
In periods of great uncertainty of course we crave a clear plan. But with unpredictability we have to be iterative, constantly adjusting and learning as we see the impact of our actions and others on the system.
Recognise that in system change there are many powerful people, but none are completely in charge. Leaders who don’t claim to have all of the answers will do better. Allow space for your team – and those outside it – to try things out.
Leadership is a relationship between you and many others. Each organisation has a distinct role (and there are perils in straying into each other’s roles) but having a shared vision helps. How can you contribute to that? What more can you do to share information, ideas, responsibility?
Of course, the definition of power is that it’s the ability to achieve an intended
outcome. There are two factors that determine that ability: your own power, and the resistance you face. There are times when however powerful you might look from the outside – from the inside, all you’re aware of is what you can’t do.
You’re not alone. I’ve seen from political and business life that someone can be
objectively the most powerful person in the company – or even the country – and yet feel the most constrained, opposed, hemmed in.
That sense of owning power but feeling powerless is difficult psychologically. So, I started talking about power and I want to finish by talking about vulnerability. Whether it is hubris or insecurity – no-one benefits from an emotionally unstable leader. Power can be lonely and isolating. But you can’t do leadership alone.
Listen & observe. Reflect. Experiment. Collaborate.
These four practices may not sound powerful, but they can greatly reduce the
resistance to what you need to do. Leading with consent, building consensus for your goals, creating alliances across the system, involving others. These are the ways – alongside the authority of your position – that you achieve your outcomes.
Get the right friends and colleagues and collaborators around you. Those who will challenge you when no-one else wants to. Who will support you when you need it; inspire you with new ideas; allow you time to think. Who will tell you what you need to know. Who will try things out and learn with you. Who will remind you of your better self, and why you took on this huge and worthy responsibility in the first place.
Ruth Turner is the Senior Director at the Forward Institute and has worked for the UK government, the private sector, charities and social enterprises