Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nice Guys Finish First

Lord Acton famously said: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Freud tried to explain power by constructing a myth. In his narrative, the first human social organization was led by a primal father who possessed all of his horde's women. His sons, being thus deprived of female companionship, banded together, murdered the father, consumed his remains, and divided up the women. Then they all became petty tyrants in their own domestic domains.

This to introduce the question of power. How do you get it? What happens to you when you get it?

Do you gain power by being forceful, ruthless, and strong? Do you gain power, as Machiavelli said, by being feared or do you attain the highest office by being well liked? If Machiavelli was wrong, the road to power might lie in being nice, likeable, congenial, considerate, and outgoing.

Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reports that scientific research tends to contradict Machiavelli. Nice guys get ahead better than people who make a show of ruthlessly lusting after power, or who are willing to walk over anyone to gain it. Link here.

Lehrer quotes Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner saying: "People give authority to people they genuinely like."

Note well that Keltner is saying that power, as in authority, is something that people give to you. It is not something that you take, either by murdering and replacing the person who has it, or by tricking others into giving it to you.

If power is not given, and if it does not respect the people who have given it, it becomes despotic and abusive.

When someone abuses power, whether by lording it over his subjects or by arrogating all women for himself, others will certainly try to remove him from power. Not because they lust after the same kind of despotic power, but because they believe that power should be exercised, not abused.

Why do nice guys finish first? Largely because when you are not so nice, and when you are willing to take power by whatever means you can, people will recognize your lack of character and shun you.

Yet, psychologists tell us that when nice people gain power they quickly become much less nice.

In Lehrer's words: "Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall."

But is this essential to the nature of power? Is it lying in wait, ready to be activated as soon as the plaque goes up on the executive office? Is there a basic human instinct to abuse authority and exploit others, or is something else going on here.

Surely, we can find examples that demonstrate the paradox of power. You do not have to look very much further than the current occupant of the White House. Our president seems so completely blinded by his own power that he has lost touch with the American people... with their wishes, their needs, their interests, and their opinions.

Barack Obama acts as though he has seized power by tricking the people and can only hold on to it by force of will. He acts as though he has taken power, not as though it was given.

Of course, Obama is not rounding up the interns for pool parties, as John Kennedy did. And he is not harassing women, as Bill Clinton did. He is not abusing the power of his office the way Richard Nixon did. There are different aspects of the paradox of power. Not everyone abuses power in the same way.

Does this prove that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

I am not entirely persuaded. Look at it from a different angle, angle that does not seem to show up on the psychological tests.

Ask yourself how people gain power? Do they rise to positions of authority by a slow, step-by-step walk up the corporate or political status hierarchy? Or are they been projected into positions of authority because they have the right breeding or great oratorical skills?

Have they had a lot of practical experience with people who  actually exercise power or do they only know what they have read in books and seen in movies?

I would contend that the further you have been from real people exercising power the more you will lack role models and be reduced to emulating fictional characters.

A man who has worked his way up through the ranks is going to wear the mantle of power very differently than the man who has leaped over everyone else to assume a position for which he is neither qualified or suited.

Most corporate leaders must work their way up through the ranks. The same is certainly true of military leaders. It is not true of political leaders.

Thus, we have seen presidents to whom the paradox of power does not seem to apply at all. Think of Dwight Eisenhower or George H.W. Bush.

Other presidents were propelled into the presidency without the required background and experience. John Kennedy won the presidency on the basis of his good looks and eloquence. He was hardly the most qualified politician or the most distinguished member of Congress.

Strangely enough, the presidents who immediately followed Dwight Eisenhower-- Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon-- all demonstrated the paradox of power. Albeit in different ways.

Do you think that it was a coincidence that they were all junior officers during World War II. Did they feel that somehow they had not worked their way up the ladder? Did they feel that they were unworthy of following a commanding general like Eisenhower?

I would maintain that the paradox of power really applies for the most part to people whose acquisition of power represents too great a leap over people who have earned their positions in the chain of command.

1 comment:

un sex shop said...

The chap is completely right, and there's no skepticism.