Q: I recently was listening to a broadcast interview on National Public Radio (NPR), When Power Goes to Your Head, It May Shut out Your Heart, featuring a discussion about new neuroscience research on the relationship of power with fame or promotion. Given that the connection between head and heart is such a fundamental principle in The Leadership Challenge and a key component of the Enable Others to Act practice, I’m wondering if you might weigh in on this discussion.
A: Thanks so much for sharing news of this research on the relationship of power with fame and promotion. I found the NPR interview and the original article, Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others, featured in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, very intriguing. This latest research sheds light on why people in positions of authority can be less empathetic than others. I was also reminded that the more we learn about our brains, the more fascinating this field becomes.
My only caution is that having "power over someone" is not the only way to view power. There is other behavioral science research on power that looks at it from the perspective of "feeling powerful" or "feeling powerless." The type of power the NPR interviewee refers to is of the over/under, top/down variety. Other researchers—for example, the late professor of psychology at Harvard, David McClelland—equate feeling powerful with ability and competence. They use the phrase "socialized power" to differentiate it from the "personalized" or "self-serving power." Keep in mind that the root origin of the word "power" is "to be able." When people talk about "empowerment," for example, they are literally meaning, "to make others able." This is the perspective on power that we take in The Leadership Challenge.
In The Leadership Challenge, when we talk about how exemplary leaders make others feel powerful, we are in no way suggesting that leaders make others feel like they have "power over others" and should use it in self-serving ways. Rather, we are saying exemplary leaders use their own socialized power to make others feel strong and capable.
Thanks for stimulating the brain cells and getting us to think more deeply about words and their meaning…as well as about power!
Jim Kouzes, cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the just-released ebook, Finding the Courage to Lead.