By Guy Higgins
It is extremely important for leaders to recognize that they possess real power. That power surrounds them like an aura and can have two very bad effects. It can adversely affect the leader and it can adversely affect the leader’s subordinates and even people outside the power structure. The news has been filled with stories about men harassing and abusing (and perhaps worse) women. While the women were the primary victims, these men were also abusing their power and the people who gave them, explicitly or implicitly, that power. I want to explore those two adverse effects of power. I want to start with a short look at a classic case of power abuse in history, as captured by Jean Anouilh in the play Becket. Henry II of England was in a struggle with the Roman Catholic Church regarding legal authority over clergy in civil law matters. In what Henry probably thought was a stroke of genius, he had his close friend Thomas Becket named Archbishop of Canterbury. When Becket was elevated to that position, instead of supporting Henry’s claim to authority over clergy, Becket took the Church’s position and opposed his former friend. In the play, Henry II wails, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Several of his knights, upon hearing this complaint, ride off to Canterbury and promptly “rid” the king of Becket by murdering him in the cathedral. So, was this abuse of power the result of Henry’s intentional, if indirect, command to kill the Archbishop or was it the result of his knights’ misunderstanding a frustrated (and powerful) king’s complaint?
Power affecting the leader
Henry was king of England in the late twelfth century and was, indeed, a very powerful king – in fact, he was, very nearly, an autocrat, ruling England by personal fiat. Perhaps he thought he could have his former friend killed and his problem solved. If so, he was wrong – the Pope threatened Henry with excommunication and eternal damnation and Henry performed penance for the death.
It seems, from news reports, that the men now being accused of sexual harassment are or were in positions in which they had, or accumulated over years, enormous power. In some of the cases, that power was explicit because of the corporate or governmental positions they held. In some of the cases, that power was implicit because they were “cash cows” for the organization and therefore possibly enjoyed protection from the organizational leadership. In any such cases, the powerful person can easily come to feel that they are invulnerable and can behave with the impunity of a Roman emperor or some mythical oriental potentate. Leaders need to be constantly aware of the potential to feel invulnerable because that feeling will develop slowly and insidiously – not in some flash of, “Aha, I’m a leader now and I can do anything I want.” It starts slowly with little things and gradually grows to encompass bigger and more egregious behavior. This feeling of power can manifest itself in a variety of abusive behaviors – sexual harassment, bullying, ignoring rules and procedures, ignoring subordinates’ inputs and ideas, and other pathologies. I’ve seen leaders who simply stopped listening to objections to their ideas. I’ve seen leaders who verbally abused and intimidated subordinates. I’ve seen leaders who simply reworked everything their subordinates submitted. I had a case of sexual harassment in an organization that reported to me (subject of a future post). All of these behaviors reflect the belief or assumption that the leader is universally right and can do anything. These people were not stupid or incapable, but they did not have the benefit of an ancient Roman tradition – that of the slave who rode with a triumphant general in the generals’ chariot during the official Triumph (a glorious parade authorized by the Roman Senate for a particularly important military victory) and whispered in the general’s ear. “Sic transit gloria mundi” (roughly, “all glory is fleeting”).
Power affecting subordinates
Did Henry’s knights hear a frustrated complaint and misinterpret it as a royal command? It seems to me unlikely that Henry would have thought he could have Becket murdered without any response from the Pope, so it is possible that he was misunderstood. That said, the result was the same, Becket was murdered and Henry performed penance for it.
This is an even more insidious result of power because the leader can actually be unaware that people are taking his or her thoughts and acting on them, even though the leader is merely expressing a hope or idea. I suspect that I experienced such a situation when some people who worked for me, but were physically co-located with my boss (and with whom they had a close relationship), went to him about inadequate funding. My boss may have said something like, “I’ll take care of it” or “Go ahead, I’ll find money.” Whatever happened, I wasn’t consulted or informed and my people spent money that they didn’t have in the budget – and that caused problems that my boss took me to task for while denying that he had ever authorized spending the money. Similarly, a few years ago, a general was found to have abused his power by flying a military transport from his current position in Europe to his soon-to-be position in the western U.S. – solely for his convenience. It’s certainly possible that the general said, “Get me a C-17 from X to Y.” That order would have been executed without a question by some eager captain or major. It’s also possible that the general said something like, “It sure would be convenient if there was a C-17 headed to Y that I could get a lift on.” That hope could also have been unquestioningly acted on by that eager captain or major and scheduled as an aircraft reposition so that it wouldn’t seem strange that there were no other passengers or cargo. In either case, there was an abuse, and the general was responsible (as he was found to be – a finding that cost him his new job).
The key point for leaders is that we must be continually vigilant against intentional or unintentional abuse of our power. Being a leader means working hard to make sure your people have the resources and environment within which to succeed. It doesn’t make us autocrats or divine-right kings/queens. It pays to maintain that vigilance because even the most powerful or important people can be punished for their abuse of power.
One more thought: in cases where a senior leader has a high-performing subordinate leader working for her and observes abusive behavior in that subordinate, she must take action – immediately. If the abuse is egregious or continues, the subordinate must be removed. No amount of high performance justifies abusive behavior.
I won’t try to tell you that abuse of power is always punished, but if we’re good leaders, we can contribute to making that more true.