Leadership for the 21st Century: the plague of Power-Intoxication

The senior executive chairing the meeting asks for views but does not seem to be listening. It looks like the others know that this person does not listen. The voices that speak reflect prudence rather than integrity. The words are fancy and the tones are scientific but, when the meeting ends, it is clear -- everyone has taken safe positions rather than actively think, enquire together, and break new ground. There is confirmation of the Chair’s ideas and an affirmation that the seat of power is wise. Despite the lessons of history and so much more education, the mind filled with power seems to be no different from that centuries ago.

In our times, the ill-effects of power-drunk people at the helm are proving to be widespread, deep, and tectonic. This may seem exaggerated but, in my view, this is one of the serious threats to our future as a species. i agree with Yuval Noah Harari (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) that we ”confront….the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered”. Leaders, more than ever before, must ask themselves if they ”serve power or truth”.

Edgar H Schein (former Professor at the Sloan School of Management, MIT) cautions us about this in Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.  “In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident’ and though ”senior managers….always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates”, “when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment….” 

Edgar goes on to state that “shockingly” people often “settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.”

One of the interesting lessons in Good to Great is that when a company loses a leader (who is charismatic and flamboyant, but power-filled), it falls apart. This is so because the departing leader worked for “personal greatness” rather than “set the company up for success in the next generation.” Jim Collins makes the point that is in stark contrast to companies that keep up a consistent climb to greatness, owing to leaders who, among other things, create ”a climate where the truth is heard”.  Such leaders listen and do not shoot messengers. Consequently, they have teams that are prepared to weather any storm – indeed, teams that are willing to storm the gates of hell at the call of their leaders. Such leaders leave behind legacies that thrive long after they have stepped out of the playing field.

History tells us that this is no new thing. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford writes —  ”Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.” This he did with an army that at no time exceeded “one hundred thousand warriors – a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.” What speaks of Genghis’ leadership is not this but that fact that “he left his empire with such a firm foundation that it continued growing for another 150 years” with “vestiges of his empire” continuing for over seven centuries. While most conquerors died miserable deaths, despised by their own as tyrants, Genghis Khan “passed away in his campbed, surrounded by a loving family, faithful friends, and loyal soldiers ready to risk their life at his command.” In every village, country, and region he conquered, Genghis would call for the learned, the wise, the healers, the writers and the thinkers – and with the help of translators who always accompanied him, he would listen. The man who was probably the most powerful human ever, it turns out, listened, learned – and did not permit power to deafen him.