In my days of working in IT at a big international company, I eventually rose to a moderate level in the hierarchy – such that I was once even given the title of vice-president of something or other, to impress some Americans. One thing I did observe during those years was that, in general, the higher level managers were more unpleasant and lacking in empathy than people lower down the scale – not an invariant rule, as there was indeed the odd relatively human high level manager (yes, I probably mean you, if you’re reading this). Also, it was often the more unpleasant and pushy characters who got promoted more quickly.
I was therefore not surprised to read Oliver Burkeman’s review of Dacher Keltner’s book The Power Paradox: How We gain and Lose Influence in Saturday’s Guardian Review. Keltner is an American psychologist. Apparently, research observing primates suggests that those who gain power are those who exhibit empathy and enthusiasm and work for the common good. However, other research suggests that achieving power reliably turns people nasty. People who feel powerful will do things that they would not have done before – it is justifiable for them to break the rules that others should not (e.g. avoid paying taxes). This is the paradox of Keltner’s title.
My anecdotal work experience seems to fit this pattern.
The state of the world, with increasing inequality in most major nations, also seems to fit. Economic systems (notably neoliberalism and debt-based money) appear to be designed so that the rich benefit at the expense of others. Attempts to make the system more redistributive and empathetic, even to just remove tax havens, are intensely resisted. (Remember that money is power.) Two extreme examples are the severe conditions imposed on Greece re its debts, and the plight of current Syrian refugees.
The encouraging fact lies in the first set of research above. It does not have to be this way, people are essentially co-operative and compassionate. It is the task of leadership to foster this with the visionary enthusiasm of hope and sharing, rather than the invocation of fear and divisiveness. The real question is perhaps whether leaders have the insight into themselves to release their compassion, rather than following their fear-driven egos.
Featured image of Verreaux’s Eagle from larger picture ‘The aerial duel at dawn!’ by Steve Garvie, via Wikimedia Commons