The Shadow Effects of Leadership Power

Dr. Cedar Barstow

Power, the ability to have an effect or to have influence, is our birthright. We all have power and need it to survive, to have relationships, and to be productive. Think how much power a baby has when he or she cries or laughs.

Our lives are full of relationships where there are power differences, and we all move back and forth between being in what I call “up-power” and “down-power” roles. For example, there is a power differential between a CEO and the employees, a doctor and the patients, a clergyperson and the parishioners, a teacher and the students. Both sets of people in these relationships have their personal power, but the person in the up-power role has the additional power that accompanies his/her assigned, elected, or earned role. A therapist moves from up-power with a person in therapy to down-power with a supervisor. A CEO going to the dentist moves from up- to down-power. We make this shift more often than we notice.

Research (Google: Joris Lammers, power; Dacher Keltner, power paradox) is showing that people who have greater power act differently from people who have lesser power. Increased or decreased power has cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and somatic effects. “Good” people tend to have the idea that those who abuse their up-power do so because they are simply greedy, fearful, self-aggrandizing, or power-hungry. However, it turns out that the situation is more complicated. Power affects everyone, and unless it is understood and mediated, very often it results in abuses. In fact, the greater the power difference, the greater and more widespread the harm. The widely held idea (Lord Acton) that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is largely true.

There are two ways to respond to this information. The first is to decide that power is bad; therefore, if you don’t want to cause harm, don’t have power, or if you have it, pretend you don’t. A teacher tries to be “just friends” with her students. A committee chair gives a committee member too many chances to get something done. A therapist fails to assess the effectiveness of the therapeutic process. A CEO doesn’t hold the employees accountable.

The second way is to learn about the effects of power so that you can notice and mediate them by using or responding to positional power with wisdom and skill, whether you are up-power or down-power.

So, what are these effects, and what kind of self-reinforcing loop do these effects create?

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