The Power Thing…

How leaders handle power is perhaps one of the most intriguing studies in human behavior. It turns out that very few can handle it with balance, humility, a learning mindset, objectivity, and most of all, in the service of their organizations.

Many of these individuals when they are working their way up to power are “one of the gang”. They exhibit teamwork, empathy, and understanding. They share their views regarding ways the organization can be improved and are happy to lend a hand in fixing it. However, when they are given a small dose of power, they are seduced into a high that takes over their thinking and behaviors.

Whereas they used to “break bread” with you and have transparent and two-way conversations, they start to converse in the elitist language of the powerful.

Having been privileged to rub shoulders with some of the most powerful people on earth due to my parents standing in pre-revolution Iran (during the Shah’s regime), I am well familiar with the symptoms of this malaise and where it eventually leads. The Shah of Iran, when he first took over from his father, loved his country, was easy to get along with, and enjoyed social occasions and conversations. Over time, and especially after he was overthrown (only to be brought back by the CIA), he allowed those around him and the power of his throne to completely corrupt him and isolate him from his constituency. The same could be said of Jeffrey Skilling the ex-Enron president and COO. According to the accounts in Clay Christensen’s book, How Will You Measure Your Life1, Skilling was a beloved coed at Harvard and a model citizen. Over time he gradually drifted into isolation from his core values and became surrounded in an echo chamber of power, wealth, control, and exclusivity. Of course, the fate of both men are well known and a lessons for us all.

Here are some tell-tell signs to look for:

  1. You start to speak in the language of “we” when referring to your positions and affiliation
  2. You start to agree and endorse with most of what your exclusive group thinks and decides. Any form of creative dissent is experienced as a threat to your power and standing. Your non-verbal signals make your displeasure clear and you start to gang up on employees who show disagreement or non-alignment with you or the “group think”
  3. You tell your team not to be emotional and sensitive and to not “rock the boat”. Put your head down and follow like well-fed sheep.  Translation “you are threatening me (us), fall in line or pay the price” Often this compliance has little to no relation with the veracity or value of the suggestions, shareholder interest, or what is best for the organization.  More typically, it is related to the preferred personal style or top team’s conventions and absence of readiness for creativity, courage, and change.  A death bell in the 21st century for talent acquisition, retention, and leadership
  4. The words, feelings, innocence, and merits of arguments of your employees become secondary and often inconsequential as compared to the potentially ill-informed and half-baked perceptions of senior management. If someone on the senior team decides to poison the well-regarding employee and their performance it will be a one way conversation with the employee occupying the lesser position
  5. Important information regarding the employee is withheld or they find out accidentally because you feel time spent on your own or your team agendas is more important than value-based leadership
  6. You start to reward loyalty, alignment, and gathering of information that is useful to your own personal success over creativity and constructive dissent. A deadly malaise for any leader in this century
  7. Alignment with important stakeholders important to your career progression trumps what you really think, how you feel about them, or their decisions
  8. Add more symptoms as you see fit


Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, used a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine.  He concluded that power impairs the brain’s neuro pathways.  In particular the human capability for “mirroring,” which is fundamental to empathy.  Mirroring is our ability to understand and mirror emotions back to others.  The paradox is that unchecked, once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

The bodily signals released with power make these leaders incapable of practicing self-regulation. Absent awareness and active training, they lose their ability to practice the golden rule. “How would I feel and how would I react if I were on the other side of the interaction that I just led or participated in”.

Here are some suggestions for recovering from the auto response thoughts and behaviors that unexamined power can bring:

  1. Research the physical and psychological effects of power on your body. As much as we all think we are unique and different, we are all governed by the same biology and chemistry
  2. Notice the voice of power and its intoxicating influence on you as it takes over your body and soul
  3. Surrender and admit to your vulnerability. That you have been bitten by the power bug and you have been infected with misplaced ego
  4. Seek feedback with an open and non-judgmental mindset
  5. Apologize and ask for forgiveness. Don’t worry, no one is too big for it. You will feel like a boulder is lifted off your back. Even if you don’t get the response that you were looking for, you did the right thing.  You can only control your own actions
  6. Repeat steps 1-4 during the next power-fueled episode. The brain pathways for new behavior are continuously renewed with new action and behavior. Over time the new pathways will naturally become the default behavior and you will move upstream exhibiting new behaviors unprompted and earlier.

Here is what we know. Twenty first century workforces will exhibit much of the raw energy and character of the borough of Manhattan. One of the reasons I love living near Manhattan is that no one “type” really owns it.  The pace is so incredibly fast and the performance standards are so high that no one has the time nor the inclination to think too much about your pedigree, title, or your exclusive tribe.

If you cannot perform, you will be yesterday’s newspaper. Which of course means that in turn the leader has to select and motivate the very best talent to respond to the environment. And to allow them to take a few risks that are fueled by their passions and creativity.

The opposite image is your general practitioner coming into the examination room for your annual check-up smoking a cigarette and offering you one. As a leader, your job is to examine the 21st century and adjust your style to it and not exhibit outdated and demotivating decisions and behaviors.

When those that espouse leadership and leadership development are seduced and become addicted to perceived power they fail their commission. If being in service of the organization and its talent are your espoused positions, it is important to look and feel like the general practitioner physician who exudes wellness and health. You can do it.  Be the person you would like to be led by. 

Selecting people that you feel more emotionally connected with, are more of “your type”, make you feel good and warm, are great politicians, are submissive to your direction, and speak when it is safe and in alignment with your views, will mean you and your organization will be left behind. It is also the reason why, if you do not adjust your mindset, your organization will be left with lower performing talent. Submissive, uncreative, and a drag that will lessen your chances of assuming a leadership place in your space.

Finally, almost every organization in USA is on the band wagon espousing diversity and inclusion. However, few actually understand the difference between a diverse workforce and an inclusive and empowered culture. D&I is not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation etc. It is also about allowing your workforce to be authentic and feel included. That their voice matters and their talents should be leveraged in the best interest of the success of the organization and most importantly your client needs and expectations.

Of course this is more difficult for those who have been shaped in the 20th century or come from geographical cultures that are hierarchical and submissive. However, I have worked with and witnessed remarkable changes in those who have understood the cost of power addiction and have made a concerted effort at regulating their reaction to it.

Today the best prognosticators cannot accurately predict what the world will be like in 5 years. The only choice is to build your muscles of flexibility and agility.  This means the humility to create an environment where the norms are to place the best talent for the job at hand. This implies letting go of your ego, your insecurities, your desire for control and harmony, and feeding your friends and those you like. It means you live by the rules of fairness and meritocracy. If you cannot do that, you will lose your position of leadership in the 21st century. The speed, complexity, and rate of change means that the market place will speak first and last not the kings and queens that have in the past ruled organizations unchallenged.

  1. Christensen, Clayton M. How Will You Measure Your Life? New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 2017.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. What is your relationship with Power? How does it make your feel and act?
  2. Did you relate to any of the symptoms listed above?
  3. What is left in you if and when you are stripped of your power? How will you feel about you?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

4 Responses to The Power Thing…

  1. Jason Arends says:

    Wow! Another great piece from Kaveh. As we enter the season of Thanksgiving, this is a good time of year to become more introspective.

  2. Thank you, once again, for a thought-provoking essay. Reading you always makes me think a bit deeper.

  3. Nice article! Very Helpful. Thanks for sharing. Keep inspiring us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: