Leadership Development: Don’t Abuse the Power Drug

“IMF chief jailed on sexual assault charges.” The headline was splashed across newspapers and websites around the world. If you’re not familiar with the event, the now former head of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York City for an alleged sexual assault against a hotel worker. The story became the subject of conversation around the dinner table with friends the other day, as I’m sure it has at many tables around the world. A friend wondered how a person could reach a point where they believed such behavior was acceptable.

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen this before. There’s an old saying that the higher you go, the harder you fall – and the bigger splash you make when you hit – but look at leaders at much lower levels to understand how this behavior develops.

First, let’s be clear that, at least in this country’s system of jurisprudence, the accused is not guilty just because he was charged. His guilt or innocence is for a court to decide. But, from what I read, it seems pretty likely that the accused did at least take some inappropriate liberties with a worker. Why would he do such a thing? Why jeopardize a seemingly distinguished career? Did he not consider the potentially disastrous consequences?

Probably not. When I first attained a leadership position that afforded me a little bit of power I noticed that there was a personal affect beyond just the responsibility that came with the position. People treated me differently. They tended to defer to me in some situations and those whose professional future I could affect were eager to do whatever they could to make me happy. Now let me emphasize that this position afforded me only a little bit of power. As I observed my peers, I saw different ways of handling the small amount of clout we all had. Most were humble and used that influence to further their organization’s goals and help their people. Unfortunately, though, a few became intoxicated with the perquisites. As I observed those in positions above me, who had more power, I saw the same thing. It was interesting to note that the higher and more powerful the position the more likely it was that those who didn’t handle the power well earlier became even more arrogant and displayed an attitude of entitlement.

That’s when leaders get in trouble. Power can be an addictive drug. Like many narcotics, it can be used to do wonderful things, or it can be abused, leading it’s victims to ruin. This drug can lead to a feeling of entitlement, making the abuser feel immune to the rules as they apply to everyone else. Oddly enough, there are always plenty of examples to demonstrate that leaders are not immune. When leaders ignore the warnings they themselves became an example for those who replace them after they fall.

As leaders, we must resist the temptations that come with power, starting at the lowest leadership positions. That means training new leaders in the need for restraint. As Obi Wan said in Star Wars, “Use your power for good, not evil.”