Leadership and the abuse of power

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I found an article on the Psychology Today blog explaining why and how power corrupts leaders .

It explains that a leader can use his or her power to help others, but, of course the leader can also gain personally.  The obvious problem is that when self-interest rules, the leader gains but often at the followers’ expense.

The dangerous thing is that leaders can begin to delude themselves.  They start to believe that the rules that govern what is right and what is wrong do not apply to them because they have the best interests of their followers at heart.

Leaders can become “intoxicated” by power – doing something unethical or taking an unreasonable risk – just because they can!  They can become addicted to the adrenaline rush and followers can begin to collude – it is OK “He’s the boss!”

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen several times in large organizations and not always at top-level.

Sometimes it is someone in an unchallengeable leadership position in a particular division.  They are getting results so those further up the line choose not to ask questions.  Sometimes, it is someone with particular intellectual capital (the subject matter expert) or a scarce talent.  Again it can be easier for “management” to look the other way.

It does not happen just in large organizations.  Abuse of power can happen anywhere! Eventually, the organization suffers eventually either in terms of legal challenge or financial loss from poor decision-making.  The reputational loss can be considerable!

It happens less in organizations with resilient governance arrangements and in those bodies whose top leaders set an example of ethical and compassionate leadership.

But I fear that the present economic circumstances, a climate may be created in which the abuse of power is more not less likely to take place.

On the positive side, of course, power makes leaders more assertive and confident.  They feel more certain of their decisions. This enables them to move forward towards their vision.

At the end of the day leaders and manager must be given the power to “get the job done.” But I’d welcome your views on how best to keep this to a healthy balance!

Wendy Smith is a personal coach and writer at Wisewolf Coaching. She is a qualified coach and a member of the Association for Coaching as well as being a member of the Institute of Consulting and a graduate of the Common Purpose leadership programme.  Wendy is author of “The WiseWolf Job Search Pocket Book: How to Win Jobs and Influence Recruiters” as well as two novels and a number of articles on management and well-being. Her latest publication is a little eBook; “How to Get on With the Boss.”  You can contact Wendy at wendy@wisewolfcoaching.com

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