The perils of power

Could you cope with promotion - and remain yourself? John van Maurik spots the dangers

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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Trainee Sales Executive

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Trainee Sales Executive is re...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Cambridgeshire - £23,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Front-End Develo...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?