Three Problems of Power

Margaret Heffernan
3 min readDec 11, 2020

by Margaret Heffernan

The language says it all. ‘Working your way up’, ‘climbing the ladder’ are ways of describing successful careers: emerging from the dank basement to the wide bright vistas atop a hierarchy. Like Beethoven’s prisoners in Fidelio, the journey is from dark to light, from confinement to freedom: “up here alone is light.”

This narrative is so alluring that many who follow it fail to see its pitfalls. The climb changes what you do, what you can see and who you are. So compelling is the story that it’s easy to see such evolution as all positive. It isn’t.

Problem 1. Pleasing

Take Tom, a smart, keen engineer who joined a big energy firm and did well. He never had to apply for promotions, his excellent work ensured that he was chosen. With each bigger project, his skills expanded and he became more knowledgeable, more experienced and better connected. So his career acquired momentum as more people chose him for more projects that attracted more attention and their success more accolades. It was a great ride.

Until right at the top of a public company, he encountered a problem that was novel, at least to him. One of his ExCo colleagues was breaching the firm’s ethical guidelines. Worse still, everyone knew. This bothered Tom, he shrugged it off because it wasn’t, officially, his problem. But it continued to nag at him to the degree that he decided his only option was to leave.

This highly skilled, seasoned, connected, powerful man confronted a problem he didn’t know how to solve. Why was he capable of addressing all kinds of hugely complex issues — but not this one? The answer lay in his ascent.

Sure, he’d developed expertise and networks. But most of all what he had learned was how to please his bosses. Given clear expectations and processes, Tom was superb at understanding and doing exactly what was expected of him. That’s how he got to the top; it’s how most people get to the top. He was, he said, always ‘chosen’; he had never had to take the initiative. But now he was at the top, he was stuck. He had power, but nothing in his career had taught him how to use it.

The problem with pleasing is that it asks the wrong question: not ‘what is the best thing to do here?’ but ‘what does someone else want me to do?’ The first question asks that you think, as Hannah Arendt said, without bannisters. The second question is all bannisters, constraints and entanglements; it impedes thinking. So it’s a chastening thought that the pursuit of success specifically disables independence of mind.

The attraction of bannisters, of course, is that they show you where to go; you are relieved of the burden of decision. So they offer certainty, guarantees that become addictive. Over time, that certainty becomes the necessary quality of a good decision: one destined to succeed. But in an age of uncertainty, the need becomes incapacitating. There are too many unknowns, too much ambiguity. When the route is not clear, when you have to take decisions before all the data is in, the creativity to imagine options becomes fundamental. But a lifetime of pleasing erodes that capability.

At Stanford, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo used to run a class he called ‘deviant for a day’. It’s alarming, he told me, how profoundly we are driven to please those around us. So he required that each of the students do something, for just one day, that contradicted the expectations of the people around them. Some were slovenly, others punctual or late, a few went silent. It’s important, he explained, that individuals find within themselves the capacity to stand outside the expectations and norms of others, if they’re going to be able to think for themselves.

Hierarchies are natural and what makes them so powerful is that nobody needs to define or explain the exchange of power for independence. It’s inferred and self-perpetuated; pecking orders are ubiquitous. But hierarchies conceal a trap: the idea that power will give you freedom. It too often does just the opposite: stripping away the capacity to think freely, make choices and take action.


Problem Two: Silence and Blindness

Problem Three: Distance and Dehumanization



Margaret Heffernan

CEO of 6 businesses, her book WILFUL BLINDNESS was called a classic; her TED talks have been seen by over 12 million people. UNCHARTED is her new book.