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Political Power and Progress

November 30, 2007


In my discussions of Development-in-a-Box™, I have noted that bad leaders and corruption often undermine the best efforts of the development community to achieve genuine progress. An interesting Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam provides some insight into why some leaders go bad [“With Power Comes a Selfish Point of View’,” 26 November 2007]. I wrote about one example of a potentially good leader gone bad in a recent post concerning Ethiopia [Uncertain Future for Ethiopian Development]. In that post, I noted that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, was once considered the darling of Western powers for his efforts to tackle Ethiopia’s deep poverty; but power brought out his darker side. Vedantam begins his column talking about another leader who has been both praised and vilified by the West, Pervez Musharraf.

“In the interest of promoting democracy, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, recently announced that he had to lock up most of his country’s democracy activists. And because he wanted the Pakistani Supreme Court to independently rule on whether he could continue as president, Musharraf also locked up the country’s top judges and replaced them with yes men. Seen in the long light of history, last week’s court ruling that Musharraf could continue in power was less Machiavellian than unoriginal. For as far back as historical records go, people in power have told astonishingly bald-faced lies, saying they are acting in the public interest when they are really acting in their own.”

There is no delusion like self-delusion. Even most tyrants hold sham elections to demonstrate how beloved they are of people. Vedantam points out that Saddam Hussein used to hold elections and win them with an impressive 95 percent of the vote — the remaining 5 percent of the vote, he muses, were given to other candidates as a show of modesty! Power-hungry leaders, it seems always couch their speech in populist rhetoric, and use it to justify nearly everything. As Vedantam writes, “In earlier times, conquests and colonialism, even slavery, have been justified as being in the best interest of the victims.” The question raised by Vedantam is: Are selfish, power-hungry leaders born or made?

“The standard explanation for why those in power act in self-interested, venal and authoritarian ways is that they are bad apples to begin with. Indeed, many people believe that such men and women are the ones most likely to rise to power. But new research in political science and psychology has provided a novel explanation for why leaders and managers regularly let their followers down and resort to the kind of ‘layoffs and pay cuts are good for you’ talk that defines absurdity. These studies show that leaders often emerge from communities not because they are ruthless, but because they are skilled at managing social relationships.”

You often hear critics of powerful people say, after meeting the target of their criticism face-to-face, they found them quite engaging and charming. In other words, they like them in social situations and are confused why that personal amiability doesn’t translate into public sensibility. In a word: power.

“Something happens to people once they acquire power, however, and the transformation appears to be psychological. Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, recently had volunteers describe either a situation in which they had power over someone else or a situation in which they felt powerless. Those asked to remember a situation in which they felt powerful were made to feel even more powerful by being given control of the distribution of goodies, whereas the volunteers asked to remember a powerless situation were further reminded of their powerlessness when they were asked to estimate how many goodies they expected to receive. When Galinsky and his colleagues asked all the volunteers to draw the letter E on their foreheads with a marker, those who had been made to feel powerless were three times more likely to draw the E so that it was legible to someone facing them. Those made to feel powerful, however, drew the letter so that it looked correct from their internal perspective but was a mirror image from the point of view of someone facing them [the power “E” is on the left in the attached image — click to enlarge].”

In interviews, FBI Special Agent George Piro, the man entrusted with interrogating Saddam Hussein following his capture, asserted that Saddam was an engaging conversationalist who teared up after their final session. The study cited by Vedantam indicates that we each have a Jekyll and Hyde side. Power changes us in dramatic ways; not the least of which is that it changes how we think.

“Galinsky’s point, which he noted in a study published in the journal Psychological Science, is that volunteers made to feel powerful, even in a trivial laboratory experiment, almost instantly lose the ability to see things from other people’s points of view. Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said Galinsky’s finding reflects a growing realization that power entails a paradox. ‘People in organizations and in hierarchies and in informal groups like college dorms want leaders to be socially intelligent,’ Keltner said. ‘They will sacrifice all manner of things to have leaders who are thoughtful and engaged and give other people voice.’ But once socially gifted people rise to power, Keltner added, the paradox is that ‘power simplifies our thinking. We tend to see things in terms of our own self-interest, and it makes us more impulsive. We forget our audience in service of gratifying our own impulses.’ Keltner and others have shown that power exacerbates many cognitive biases. People who lack power turn out to be more accurate in guessing the opinions of those around them, whereas those in power tend to be inaccurate. Because subordinates are also hesitant to tell superiors things they do not want to hear, the problem gets worse, with powerful people having even less input and perspective about how others think and feel.”

The surprising thing is that there is such a thing as “great leader.” Great leaders are those who make their subordinates feel like their views and interests are being heard and met, even when decisions go against them. I suspect that most great leaders have at least one trusted ally who is willing to tell them what they need to hear even if it is bad news. Unfortunately, most leaders surround themselves with “yes men” [or women] and appreciate loyalty more than truth. That appears to be a formula for failed leadership. Lord Acton wrote a famous passage in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that read:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

He obviously defined “great” differently than I do. By “great,” Lord Acton meant powerful, not “wise, inspiring, fair, and decisive.” I don’t believe you can be great and bad. Galinsky’s study helps us understand why power corrupts. The interesting thing is that Galinsky’s study implies that relative positions of power make a difference even to people who have no reason to worry about losing power — like Supreme Court justices.

“Even U.S. Supreme Court justices, Stanford University psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld found, write more complex arguments when they are in the minority compared with when they are part of the majority. In some ways, the results should not be surprising: Not having power forces you to see things from other people’s points of view and increases empathy and social behavior. Having power allows you to ignore other points of view — depriving you of the social skills that led to power in the first place.”

How often have you asked yourself (after seeing some powerful person do or say something stupid), “Doesn’t he [or she] understand how that makes them look?” Well, apparently they don’t.

“When powerful people such as Musharraf say and do things that are absurd, … it could be that they are simply unaware of how they appear to others. Keltner once had groups of three people sit before a bowl that contained five cookies, and each volunteer took one. That left two cookies. By mutual agreement, the volunteers always left the last cookie in the bowl. So who took the fourth cookie? Invariably, Keltner found, the person in the group who had been randomly assigned to feel powerful rudely grabbed the fourth cookie. ‘We videotaped how they ate,’ Keltner said, laughing. ‘The high-powered person ate with their mouth open, cookie crumbs falling all over their shirt.'”

Political cartoonists, of course, are thrilled by boorish behavior and make a fine living from it. They are not interested in seeing such behavior change, but the rest of us are. As I consider how best to implement Development-in-a-Box, for example, I need to know how to approach political leaders who may fit the description noted above. Vedantam doesn’t provide further insight in that direction, but knowing that powerful leaders have certain tendencies helps me to understand what motivates them. In any given situation, there is always someone who sits in the power chair. Even lesser bureaucrats can feel empowered in certain situations and it is important to know when they do because their behavior will likely change when they feel empowered. That means how you must deal with them changes as well. The lesson to be learned is “look for the cookie crumbs to find out who feels powerful.”

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