Power can make you a poor leader

Joe was an exceptionally talented manager in my marketing team. When the opportunity came to promote him into an executive position, I didn’t hesitate. Despite him being very young, I respected his quiet, solid approach and his passion for learning and growing in his field.

Fast forward a few months and complaints started to reach my office. “Joe is aggressive and arrogant”, “He is unfair” and his team started expressing their dissatisfaction with his leadership style.

I found it hard to believe, so I called him in for a chat and explained that his people had been raising concerns about his leadership approach. He shrugged in a matter-of-fact manner.  “Well, yes, I’ve been stepping up. I’m an executive now and I’m afraid people are struggling with that.”

The qualities that led to his promotion were precisely what he was working against. He was becoming less of a team-player and more of a dictator. He had stopped his kind, supportive approach with his colleagues and now that they reported to him he was ‘know-it-all’ and challenging to the point of intimidation.

What had happened to the softly-spoken natural leader that I had identified some months back? Had I been blind or had Joe really changed since he’d moved into a more senior role?

Research shows that personal power actually interferes with our ability to empathize. Dacher Keltner, an author and social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, has conducted empirical studies showing that people who have power suffer deficits in empathy, the ability to read emotions, and the ability to adapt behaviors to other people. In fact, power can actually change how the brain functions, according to research from Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. (Lou Solomon, HBR, 2015)

Joe’s idea of “stepping up” to fill the shoes of the Executive leadership role was fundamentally going against his natural personality and inclination. He was moving away from his humble, generous self and from showing his vulnerability (all characteristics that had led to his promotion) and moving towards control and isolation.

We agreed that Joe needed the support of an executive coach. Someone that he could confide in and who could help him define “stepping up” and what that could look like in a way that would benefit Joe, his team and the marketing department.

Joe needed to learn that taking charge did not mean he should lose his natural empathy and authenticity. He needed to understand that it was those very traits that set him apart in the first place as a strong leader.

Coaching can help you to become self-aware so that as you rise to the top on your leadership journey, ensure that you aren’t falling into the power trap.