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When good leaders go bad: Training in the use of power


Gone badDawn Smith examines the use and abuse of power in the workplace and looks at what can be done through training and coaching to help leaders use their power more ethically.

The Machiavellian model of leadership might be outmoded in theory, but in practice there's plenty of evidence to suggest that power is not always handled ethically by those who hold it.

"The consequence of misuse of power in the workplace is ultimately bullying," says Dr Gareth Edwards, senior researcher at The Leadership Trust. The bully-manager phenomenon is highlighted by ACAS, which states that: "for some time, it has been reported that most bullying in organisations is caused by managers who abuse their power because of the status they hold".

"The consequence of misuse of power in the workplace is ultimately bullying"

Dr Gareth Edwards, The Leadership Trust

And statistics show that it's not a minor issue. According to the anti-bullying charity the Andrea Adams Trust: "each year as many as 18.9m working days are lost to bullying and up to a half of all stress-related illnesses are a direct result of bullying".

That's not the only bad news for organisations whose managers handle power unethically. Bad leaders who throw their weight around at work ultimately have no power, asserts Jo Causon, director of marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute. "They won't get the best out of their people, and they will have a negative effect on retention," she says. "Ultimately, people will vote with their feet; and in the current skills crisis, the last thing you want to do is drive people to the opposition."

The corrupting power of power

Jo doesn't believe the old adage that all power tends to corrupt. "Just because of your position and status it doesn't necessarily mean you will abuse power," she says. But there's a body of opinion which ascribes to the view that something about power tends to turn good leaders bad.

Cedar Barstow, who has written a book 'Right Use of Power', and runs workshops on the subject, talks about the 'power paradox': in order to gain and maintain power a person needs qualities such as "modesty, empathy, engagement with the needs of others, and skill in negotiating conflicts". However, once in power these qualities tend to deteriorate and nastier tendencies creep in.

"Once people assume positions of power, they're likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people's points of view."

Dr Dacher Keltner, The University of California

In her book, Cedar quotes research by Dr Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, who says: "once people assume positions of power, they're likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people's points of view".

He adds that "having power makes people more likely to... interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and to fail to look at others who are speaking". Dacher concludes: "the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power".

Cedar suggests several possible reasons for this paradox. One is that people in power tend to get removed from "the checks and balances of the feedback loop". They may not do this intentionally - it may be because subordinates feel it's too risky to offer negative feedback.

Another factor, says Cedar, is that "people tend to over-identify with their power role, experiencing their enhanced power as entirely personal rather than role power". This can lead to an aggrandised and unrealistic sense of self.

Barbara Kellerman, lecturer in public leadership at Harvard University and author of 'Bad Leadership', puts it this way: "virtually every bad leader loses touch with reality somehow". They need to "get real and stay real".

The feedback loop

If feedback is crucial for keeping leaders in the real world and deterring power abuse, then organisations may be on the right track with 360º feedback programmes. Murray Steele, senior lecturer at Cranfield School of Management, points to the increasing use of this approach as a positive development in the quest for better leaders. However, Cedar Barstow believes that "training in the art of feedback" is required to make it really effective. People need to develop "skills for actively participating in the feedback loop," she says.

Of course, one of the challenges of using training in this context is that those who hold the most power are right at the top, and "the chances of getting someone at that level to go on a training course are fairly remote," says Murray. Coaching can come into its own here, he says, with the coach providing independent feedback on how the leader uses their power.

Personal power and role power

Where training is feasible, this should be experiential, adds Murray: "being on the receiving end of someone abusing their power is much more effective than having someone explain what happens when you abuse power".

The training provided by the Leadership Trust is also an "experiential process" says Gareth Edwards. "Delegates get involved in a task in a controlled environment. It might be a simulated management situation where someone will take the lead and get feedback on how they performed."

"A lot of the work we do is about self awareness and control. We use various techniques to help delegates control their behaviour."

Dr Gareth Edwards, The Leadership Trust

The Trust's training is designed to highlight the important distinction between power-from-position and personal power. "People come on to the programme with a lot of authority power," says Gareth. "We often don't use their titles. We try to enhance their personal power."

Gareth adds that control and awareness are key components of the programme: "a lot of the work we do is about self awareness and control. We use various techniques to help delegates control their behaviour".

Cedar Barstow also believes that awareness is crucial, particularly of the power paradox and the 'power differential' - i.e., the dynamics of the relationship between those in power and those they have power over. Leaders also need to develop "a felt sense of their individual power style, how it relates to other power styles and the advantages and disadvantages of each," she adds.

Setting an example

At the root of persisting problems of bad leadership and power abuse is our attitude to power, adds Cedar. Despite enlightened leadership theory, many people are still accustomed to thinking of power as "manipulation, undue force, coercion, terror and deception," she says, adding that we need "a new and socially intelligent model for power".

Past experience obviously plays an important role in shaping attitudes to power. An important factor is "how people have been treated by superiors", says psychologist Dr Jennifer Newman, who has written on the subject of power abuse within companies, together with Dr Darryl Grigg, her partner in consultancy Newman & Grigg.

The same point is made by Gareth Edwards at The Leadership Trust, who says that while parental behaviour may be a factor in shaping attitudes, a bigger influence is likely to be how peers and bosses have behaved towards you. He adds that in a recent study of leadership development conducted by the Trust, one of the most interesting findings was how people learned from their bosses. "Not just what they did well, but what they did badly."

Tips for handling power

In her book 'Bad Leadership', Barbara Kellerman suggests some tips for those in power, to help them avoid turning bad. These include:

  • Limit your tenure. When leaders remain in power for too long, they tend to acquire bad habits
  • Share power. When power is centralised, it is likely to be misused, and that puts a premium on delegation and collaboration
  • Get real, and stay real. Virtually every bad leader loses touch with reality somehow
  • Know and control your appetites. These include the hunger for power, money, success and sex
  • Be reflective. Virtually every one of the great writers on leadership emphasises the importance of self knowledge, self control and good habits. Acquiring such virtues is hard. Intent is required, but so is time for quiet contemplation
  • Encourage a culture of openness in which diversity and dissent are encouraged
  • Bring in advisers who are strong and independent
  • Avoid groupthink. Groupthink discourages healthy dissent and encourages excessive cohesiveness
  • Establish a system of checks and balances
  • From: 'Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters'

    Dawn Smith is a freelance writer of more than 15 years' standing. She also runs a copywriting, translation and web marketing company called The Final Word:

    For more information you can contact the following organisations:

    Andrea Adams Trust
    Cedar Barstow, Right Use of Power
    Chartered Management Institute
    Cranfield School of Management
    The Leadership Trust
    Newman & Grigg

    Books & resources

    'Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics', Cedar Barstow, 2006

    'Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters', Barbara Kellerman. Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

    There's a workshop on Right Use of Power, 10-12 October in Sheffield; and facilitator training on 13-14 October. For details contact Ginny Bennett [email protected]


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