Power Causes Brain Damage

5 August, 2021

How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise. Studies show that being in a position of power has side effects like loss of empathy and contact with reality, recklessness and incompetence. Jerry Useem’s article in The Atlantic describes how power can affect neural processes in the brain.

Studies spanning two decades found that subjects under the influence of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Neuroscience has found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

Is that necessarily bad?

Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued that power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly. Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation.

“Hubris syndrome,” as defined in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is 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.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence. There is no shortage of examples of executive excesses and hubris. Power can intoxicate and corrupt.

How can leaders ameliorate this impact?

Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people. Experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection – CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t.

Having a toe-holder in your life might help. For Winston Churchill, the person who filled that role was his wife, Clementine, who had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming”—with the attendant danger that “you won’t get the best results.”

Finding some way to stop feeling powerful, at least from time to time, seems to be key. Whether it’s a family member bringing you down a notch, or a trusted group of peers who’ll tell it to you straight, finding a way to remain connected to other points of view, experience and a diversity of opinion will help leaders maintain the skills that gained them power in the first place.

Jerry Useem, The Atlantic, July/August 2017 issue. Read the full article here.

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Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash