The perils of power

Could you cope with promotion - and remain yourself? John van Maurik spots the dangers
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The Independent Online
Within days of taking office, Tony Blair was being accused by the Opposition of having become power-mad. The reason? He had changed the format of Prime Minister's question time. Reactions ranged from allegations of arrogance and isolation, to amateur diagnoses of megalomania.

Now, some weeks on, these accusations have yet to be fully substantiated, though William Hague has resurrected the theme. But are there, in fact, personal perils involved in holding power? Does it corrupt? And as there are many more leaders in business, commerce and the public authorities than in the political arena, are these dangers not something about which we should all be fully aware? For example, if someone, through holding a management job, has power over the activities and well-being of other people, then are not the majority of us, both as bosses and subordinates, not subject to those perils? And are there danger signs of which we should be aware?

An alarming feature of even late-20th-century work environments is the amount of power that individuals can exert over one another. Legislation may exist to curb the more Draconian acts of whim that used to be the privilege of managers, but bosses can still cripple the careers of employees by indifferent appraisals, or drive them into paroxysms of frustration by ignoring constructive ideas and proposals.

So, if misuse of power by bosses is the danger, a number of common symptoms appear to exist. They can be summarised as follows:

developing a sense of detachment and superiority;

becoming isolated from reality;

allowing one's ego to go out of control (perhaps the greatest danger of all).

All three deserve examination.

Detachment and superiority? This is one of the most alluring traps of seniority or high office. Frequently, those who are promoted become isolated from their former peers. Indeed, they are often discouraged from maintaining close associations; after all, how can you make objective or tough decisions if you are still "one of the boys" - or girls? This is logical and desirable so long as the new leader does not lose a sense of perspective about his or her importance.

It is when the initial detachment of association leads to detachment of feelings about others that problems arise. This can lead to callousness or, worse, a feeling of superiority. When the concept of "we are all here to get the job done" deteriorates into "they are there to serve me", the rot has set in. Perks given to senior people can exacerbate the situation. After many years of working in business, and of observing different organisations, I can recall the extraordinary effect on executives of being given prestigious cars that clearly indicate that they have "arrived". I have seen these executives sweeping past lesser mortals, power-steering their limos with one hand on the wheel. Reality is filtered out by tinted windscreens and reverberating stereos.

Isolation? This may be self-induced, but can also be caused by staff "laundering" the information that reaches the boss. After all, it is better for our careers if he or she gets only the good news. And the leader may feel too insecure to ask for other people's opinions - or to reveal secret worries to them.

This sense of isolation, sometimes caused by fear that there is no one to turn to, is an obvious pitfall of power; it is also one of the hardest to withstand, and can drive people into uncharacteristically bizarre behaviour, or into making ill-informed decisions. As shown in countless books, plays and films (to say nothing of real life), the isolation of leadership can even result in a creeping paranoia.

Ego out of control? Perhaps the greatest peril of power is the effect it can have on your ego. Retaining a sense of humility is compulsory. Of course, it is easy to associate the job you perform with your overall identity as a human being, and if the job appears to place you above others then your sense of self-importance can swiftly inflate.

Sometimes the sense of superiority can become embodied in various symbols: the distinctive dress style, the "catch phrase", and so on. While no one wants to be thought of as characterless or grey, the boss who invests too much time and energy in the pursuit of image is on a slippery slope. Good leadership is found in what leaders do. If they start to place a desire for admiration above results; if they begin to demand respect rather than working to earn it - then the trappings of power have detracted from the jobholder's ability to wield power itself positively.

So, if these are the perils, how can they be avoided? The answer lies in conducting a major health check on your approach to your work and to those who work with you. This may sound daunting, but the following simple questions may provide a starting-point.

1 When did I last really listen to those who work with me - especially those junior to me?

2 Do I value people for their real worth to the business, or simply because they appear to be on my side?

3 Am I starting to see things in black and white? Or do I acknowledge that shades of grey may better reflect reality?

4 What sort of atmosphere or culture am I creating around me? Have I stopped to think what sort of culture may best promote an effective and profitable working environment?

5 How often do I stop to assess my reactions to people and situations? Could I sometimes be guilty of going over the top?

6 Do I still have a clear vision of what I want to achieve, and can I still state it with conviction? Or is it just expressed in trite slogans?

7 How do I feel about suggestions from others? Are they essential, or a mere nuisance?

8 Badges of office are an essential prop for the senior person, and information is a powerful tool that must be husbanded with care: true or false?

9 Are adapting, learning and encouraging others to learn exciting and necessary, or just a bore?

10 Am I preoccupied with measuring and checking the work of others, or do I subscribe to the theory that you can;t measure common sense or loyalty?

There is no hard-and-fast scoring method here, but how do you think you rate? Or, to be more exact, how would those working for you rate you?

The key to coping with the siren call of power, whether you are an incoming prime minister, a senior executive or even a middle manager, must lie in adopting a learning attitude, maintaining a degree of humility and recognising your responsibility to uphold recognised standards, be they legal, moral or ethical.

Outside the town of Lewes in Sussex is a monument built to commemorate the victory of Simon de Montfort over Henry III, a victory that laid the basis for the first parliament. On it is the following inscription:

"Law is like fire, for it lights as truth, warms as charity, burns as zeal. With these virtues as his guide, the king will rule well."

Truth, charity, warmth and zeal - true antidotes to the perils of power. Embodied within this exhortation are many perennial elements of good leadership. Take note, and good luck!

The writer is a consultant at PA Sundridge Park and author of `The Portable Leader' (McGraw-Hill).