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The Machiavelli Myth
August 17, 2010 9:08 AM   Subscribe

"Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude." Jonah Lehrer for The Wall Street Journal writes about recent findings on power, corruption, and authority and what can be done about it.
posted by The Whelk (28 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This seems to be the thesis of The Politician, written by John Edward's staffer/alibi Andrew Young, which reads like watching a trainwreck.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 9:15 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

I know this isn't exactly what they mean, but I'm always surprised to hear about actresses like Julie Andrews or Sandra Bullock -- lovely people famous for their likeable personas -- who have it made explicitly clear to everyone on movie sets that no one is to make eye contact with them.
posted by hermitosis at 9:20 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hermitosis, this is pretty enlightening re. the whole actors and eye contact thing
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 9:27 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm always surprised to hear about actresses like Julie Andrews or Sandra Bullock -- lovely people famous for their likeable personas -- who have it made explicitly clear to everyone on movie sets that no one is to make eye contact with them.

That explains a lot about my interactions with the Marketing department at work.
posted by goethean at 9:29 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oops, this is the relevant part, but the whole thing is definitely worth reading.
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 9:31 AM on August 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


My view is you are who you are. Power/money/alcohol just amplify it. These folks were rude and nasty before; you just didn't notice it as much is all.
posted by grubi at 9:45 AM on August 17, 2010


I'm always surprised to hear about actresses like Julie Andrews or Sandra Bullock -- lovely people famous for their likeable personas -- who have it made explicitly clear to everyone on movie sets that no one is to make eye contact with them.

it's entirely possible they try not to feel self-conscious (which, I realize for an actor seems ironic, but totally realistic) and ask people assist them in that. "Don't look him in the eye" isn't always about power dynamics.
posted by grubi at 9:47 AM on August 17, 2010


From the article: According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others.

The flip side to this is when one attempts to be the "nice guy" when managing people. Depending on the culture you inhabit, your staff may take this soft approach as an open invitation to circumvent, undermine and otherwise impede your authority. Yes, I'm looking at your culture, California.

What I'm saying is that one of the intangible aspects of leadership is getting a read on those reporting to you and their motivations. Sometimes this means being "less sympathetic". Sometimes it means giving your staff a lot of latitude. Trust is a two way street.
posted by quadog at 9:50 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."--John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton(1834–1902)
posted by leftcoastbob at 9:55 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Never underestimate the role of retirement in the development of leadership skills. I've always felt that the secret to leadership was knowing when to step down and go on a sabbatical or pursue a new venture. I think too many people hold onto their positions too long and lose their vision, so to speak, and wind up perpetuating the sort of behaviors mentioned in the article.

Besides, if you haven't prepared your organization to function at a high level when you're gone, then you really didn't do a good job to begin with.
posted by KingEdRa at 10:08 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


My view is you are who you are.

No, your behaviour is conditional on your circumstances. Sure, you have traits from your genes, and age, and sex, and previous experiences. But the way you express them is very much mediated by your conditions and the people and situations around you.

So much so that the people who are able to be themselves, whatever that is, are the ones we call psychopaths or saints.

Or to put it another way: if you think you would not abuse power if you had it then you're a better man than I am. I don't trust my human nature. I hope that knowing not to trust it makes me better able to resist it, but I would expect my behavior to degrade when I was able to let it.
posted by alasdair at 10:14 AM on August 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


UNLIMITED POWER!
posted by homunculus at 10:19 AM on August 17, 2010


From the article: Of course, power doesn't turn everyone into ruthless, immoral tyrants. Some leaders just end up being tough, which isn't always a bad thing.

Well, that rather begs the question, doesn't it?

Human love "toughness" in their leaders. Whether someone is "ruthless and immoral" or "tough" is dependent on whether they deliver the goods. This NY Times article on how Churchill is both evil racist and heroic leader is a good example. As a Briton I think he's a great man. As a Kurd or an Afghan or a Kenyan I might be equally convinced by his ability but far less positive about his actual actions. He was a bastard, but he was my bastard.

Similarly if you work for a New York investment bank. Sure, your boss is an immoral, scheming, evil bastard. He also, in the teeth of bankruptcy from insane lending, got the taxpayer to fund your enormous bonus this year.

Being a good person is not necessarily a prerequisite of being a good leader. Being a bad person does not necessarily lead to you being a bad leader. This is unpleasant but seems obvious to me.
posted by alasdair at 10:22 AM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Privilege results in poor behavior.

I guess all the times someone acts completely racist or sexist or homophobic, and all the people who know them go, "But they're a nice person!" just happened to never see the person when there was a strong power difference, huh?

It makes sense - a lot of kids aren't bullies until there's the one kid who's outcast - down far enough on the social power ladder, then everyone becomes a bully.
posted by yeloson at 10:24 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it would be interesting to take the same approach to studying parenting dynamics. Who were you before becoming a parent; how do you act after in terms of power dynamics in the home? All this nasty 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' might have some more nuance when leadership skills required for parenting are viewed through the same lens as these 'power' studies.
posted by spicynuts at 10:25 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The psychology of power - Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it [1,2]

Cutting the corruption tax - For many, corruption and political cronyism are seen as an inevitable part of Greek politics. This column argues that the same could have been said in the 1970s about Hong Kong, now a beacon of low corruption. Hong Kong managed this turnaround by appointing a non-elected governor accountable to the UK government. Greece could achieve the same by calling on the EU and start counting the benefits.
posted by kliuless at 10:54 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wise popa sloth, corrupted by his own power. Can no leader go untainted?
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:00 AM on August 17, 2010


Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude.

Because they won the game, there's no asses left to kiss to get what they want. I'm not sure these traits are what help people leaders "accumulate control," so much as the illusion of these traits helps them accomplish their goals.
posted by Kirk Grim at 11:30 AM on August 17, 2010


I'm always surprised to hear about actresses like Julie Andrews or Sandra Bullock -- lovely people famous for their likeable personas -- who have it made explicitly clear to everyone on movie sets that no one is to make eye contact with them.

May as well hang a "Stare at my boobs" sign on yourself, Sandra.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:39 AM on August 17, 2010


Uh, no offense, Ms. Andrews.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:40 AM on August 17, 2010


Interesting article, but it seems half-finished. From reading the article, I get the impression that Lederer is largely writing about a meritocracy where people are actually able to move up in a hierarchy. But you can't truly discuss power without discussing class, culture hierarchy, gender, unearned privilege, and a host of other reality-based forces that distort the meritocratic ideal (at the end of the article, Lederer does mention cronyism briefly, but that's really about it).

So, when Lederer states:

While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

he's assuming that the social ladder can actually be climbed. Which is a more-and-more questionable assumption these days, especially in the USA which seems to have less social mobility than the country it rebelled against 200 years ago, the United Kingdom.

I also suspect that the shape of a hierarchy or power structure also impacts people's behavior. Social structures can be devised that don't reward bad behavior. To imagine that abuse of power is somehow programmed into human beings is a surrender to the social Darwinist idea of reality most eloquently put forward recently as "we've got to get rid of this 'protecting the weak - if we keep the weak alive all the time, it eats up the strong."

I don't mean to sound so negative - it's a fascinating article. It's just incomplete.
posted by jhandey at 11:49 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


"However, people in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight"

Oh hi, Catholic Church, didn't see you there.
posted by Chipmazing at 12:55 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hi, what a great article! I mean the 'dictator' game made me excited and curious. It's kind of like in real life, not sure who's. Yet, we should try to find and lit some happy-ending role game sets and experiments. These psychologists have a point though. Very interesting. I'm adding to my bookmarks!
posted by vhof at 12:56 PM on August 17, 2010


"People give authority to people that they genuinely like," says Mr. Keltner... There is something deeply uplifting about this research

Right, like how people genuinely like Sarah Palin and George Bush. These leaders find out what people want to believe about themselves but are secretly afraid isn't true -- like maybe that they're the most interesting person in the world, or that their small town is the best of America. Once you convince the people that you believe it too, they are emotionally invested in putting you in power and seeing the other guy as a threat to their identity. There's nothing more satisfying than hearing what you want to hear about yourself, which is exactly what makes it exploitative.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:57 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


wow this article really rang true with me - I used to work at a place where the boss was friendly and fun to work with for the first few years I was there, and then once the company started doing well, he began to treat everyone like crap. He alienated everyone, including the most talented people who were largely responsible for the company's success, and then proceeded to make incredibly bad decisions that ended up bankrupting the company. Temper tantrums! throwing things around the office! it was unbelievable.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:51 PM on August 17, 2010


The article rang true for me as well. Much of it mirrors the ethical lapses of those in power at places I have worked. To wit:

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse.

and:

Instead of analyzing the strength of [an] argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn't, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

I don't know how to feel. On one hand, maybe people in power weren't rotten SOB's before they rose to their position. On the other hand, the corrupting influence of power is so strong that it requires a great deal of willpower to combat it.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 8:09 PM on August 17, 2010


I hope to never again hear some dipshit argue that we just need to put the right people in power.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:03 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Agreed because of the word "just", Pope Guilty; there certainly is such a thing as putting the wrong people in power.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:16 AM on August 18, 2010


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