Strategy, Innovation & Leadership LAB

Why the topic of power is too rarely discussed

July 29, 2015

Power and leadership are inextricably linked. Mastering power play significantly affects the success of organizations. Yet, power is hardly discussed, says organizational psychologist Oscar David, a core teacher of the Senior Executive Program (SEP).

Image: © Nationale Beeldbank

According to David, there are several reasons why leaders and professionals hardly consider the way power is experienced.

  1. Power is a loaded term. When power is discussed in the Netherlands, it often has the connotation of abuse of power. “That is because of our culture. The image that power evokes is immediately a negative one,” says David. "European culture has many examples of abuse of power, such as Nazism, communism, or fascism. That makes talking about power a laden and painful subject."

  2. We are not trained in dealing with power.

    Although power already plays a role in our lives from birth, we are not being trained in power dynamics. "In the family, power is determined by the mother and father, and we also encounter it later in the schoolyard. We are not being trained in it, but we do experience it,” says David. That makes it a complicated and thought provoking subject matter.

  3. Power levels when we talk about it.

    Talking about power could weaken the position of the powerful, so they often will not talk about it. "And the less powerful are also not eager to discuss power with their superiors, due to the inherent power imbalance. Power, therefore, maintains power,” says David. Chinese philosopher Laozi says on the matter: If you want to retain power, you keep silent about it. 

  4. It is difficult to discuss power openly, because power is driven by instinct. Similarly to hunger and sex, power is driven by instinct. Just as in animals, ruling and dominating is a mechanism that takes place automatically. This makes it difficult to discuss power openly.  

  5. Power is addictive (biochemically). Scientific research shows that the exercise of power releases dopamine, adrenaline, and testosterone. Dopamine creates an addictive and blissful feeling of happiness. Adrenaline determines alertness and delays feelings of hunger. Testosterone gives a feeling of invincibility and strength. "It is this combination that ensures that power is addictive. [...] The addictive biochemical elements ensure that anyone who loses a dominant position will try to regain it. If that does not happen, there is a danger of depression,” says David.

  6. Power is addictive (psychologically). Power is not only biochemically addictive, but our egos too are addicted to power. The explanation is found in modern psychology, says David. "Our egos are composed of self-images. These self-images are often pieced together by that which surrounds us. Therefore, in order to maintain them, we need the reflection of our surroundings. But we also need more and more confirmation in order to maintain this self-image."

A leader in a top position lives in a different context, says David. He thus runs an increased risk of losing sight of what is regarded as acceptable by the public. “When everyone in the same position receives a bonus of millions, he starts to see that as a normal thing. The context makes it difficult to stick to one’s inner values."

David acknowledges that it is difficult for top managers to not fall victim to the blurring of moral standards. "A lot of introspection is required from managers. But in a position with a lot of time pressure, it is a challenge to find a moment for reflection. Leaders tend to become dissociated from themselves. Often you see a very different person on holiday than at work, because then there is time for reflection."

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