How Power Messes You Up

I saw an article the other day from The Atlantic titled “Power Causes Brain Damage: How leaders lose mental capacities–most notably for reading other people–that were essential to their rise.” Here is the opening paragraph. “If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe he’s sexually magnetic. But can cause brain damage?

The article really unpacks how, when people experience power, they actually lose the capacity to empathize, and of course, that is related to reading people and responding to people and ultimately leading well. Basically it actually affects our brains.

The solution, the cure is actually to stop feeling powerful and the way you can do that is by recalling a time when you weren’t powerful. By thinking of a time where you experienced even powerlessness, really the kind of experience we try to forget. That is actually the cure for this intoxicating power.

There’s a story of Winston Churchill when his wife wrote him a letter and said, “My darling Winston, I must confess. I’ve noticed a deterioration in your manner and you are not as kind as you used to be.” She’d written that letter because she had been given a heads up that he was starting to get a little bit arrogant, a little bit full of contempt towards those who he led.

There’s actually something called hubris syndrome. It’s described as a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power, which has been associated with overwhelming success held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader. That’s from Jonathan Davidson, an article published in Brain. Fourteen different features tied to hubris syndrome include manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, reckless or reckless actions and displays ultimately of incompetence. In other words, this power moves us to incompetence in our role with powered.

I don’t know about you, but this, this kind of information scares me because it reminds me of the whole issue of cognitive biases and confirmation bias and the way we kind of protect ourselves from things that will challenge us. When we’re in a position of power, we can tend, according to this research, to think that we are the be all and end all and start not paying attention to others.

I’ve got a quote on my bulletin board from Jack Trout that says, “Praise honest information.” The idea is that the more authority you have, the higher you go up on any kind of pyramid or a totem pole or whatever metaphor you want to use, the harder it is to receive honest information. People are less likely to speak it to you, and based on this research, you are less likely to hear it. So we’ve got to have a bias towards hearing things that make us uncomfortable, hearing things that challenge our power and challenge our competence, because that is what will ultimately make us better in our roles.

As leaders, as with many principals that get uncovered through science, we discover that scripture probably says similar things in a much more concise way. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” “Humble yourself under the Lord’s mighty hand that he may lift you up in due time,” kind of says the same thing it says to humble ourself. And so we need to choose to respond to others as followers of Jesus Christ. We need to, as it says in Ephesians, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

The idea being that we recognize the presence of Christ, the presence of the Spirit in other followers of Jesus Christ, and because of that, we know that we can be corrected. We can be challenged. We can be ministered to by anyone, no matter what their role or authority is, but because they have the spirit of Christ indwelling in them. And that’s a posture then, as we humble ourselves and respond to, that will hopefully keep us from some of this hubris syndrome. The incompetence, the brain damage, the self-deception that comes with power.

Hope there’s something there to mull on. It certainly has been for me.

God bless, press on. Humble yourself under the Lord’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due course.

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