The Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence

It is a sad fact that far too many people in positions of power fall from grace once it becomes clear that that power is being misused.

The premise that power can and often does have a corrupting effect is not new. The historian and moralist, Lord Acton, coined a now well-known phrase in his letter to Bishop Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” He was not the first to echo these thoughts. William Pitt the Elder said something similar in a speech to the House of Lords in 1770: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”

Professor Keltner’s latest pint-sized exploration of power dynamics in the
21st century sets out clearly the power paradox that affects all of us who are in positions of power. He suggests that “we gain capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive out-of-control sociopaths.” Keltner draws his experiences and reflections of power from a career observing the exchanges of business executives and politicians. However, if he had spent time observing those of us involved in education, he would no doubt have drawn the same conclusion. Many involved in schools and academies at all levels have wasted the power to make a difference in the world, and particularly to the lives of children.

Social intelligence is too often damaged by the experience of power

Keltner is of the view that we have been guided for too long by Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, a book read by many who study leadership and management. He argues that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly, by people who are attuned to and engaged with the needs and interests of others. His research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force and deception.

In a socially intelligent model of power, heart and strength work together, and the focus is on collaboration and inclusivity, resolving conflict peacefully, and treating all with respect and dignity.

Unfortunately, having power makes many individuals impulsive and poorly attuned to others, making them prone to act abusively and lose the esteem of their peers. What people want from leaders — social intelligence — is what too often is damaged by the experience of power.

Keltner sets out 20 power principles that are as relevant to the classroom teacher as to a chief executive of an academy trust. They provide a framework that helps us to handle the power paradox. His focus on power being about making a difference in the world, to advance the greater good, and being gained and maintained through a focus on others is a pleasant change from the Machiavellian approach of “hard power” that so often leads to abuse.

Ian Comfort is the chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust