Problem 3: Distance and Dehumanization
When CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld was driven from his home to a heliport, then helicoptered into Manhattan, driven in another limo to the bank’s offices where a private elevator sent him up to his office. This ornate commute ensconced him in a physical bubble that no weak signals or accidental encounters could penetrate. This physical manifestation of power may look like luxury but it comes at a cost. The bubble of power seals off bad news, inconvenient detail, hostile opinion and messy reality, leaving leaders free to inhale the rarefied air of pure abstraction. Like the cave dwellers of Plato’s parable, the powerful risk mistaking shadows for reality.Power inserts distance between those who have it and those who do not. It determines whether you fly in the peaceful isolation of a private jet or the middle row in economy, next to the mother who needs help with her restless child. Power lets you, like the Google founders, arrive at meetings via paraglider, not stuck in San Francisco traffic.
The physical distance experienced by the powerful is amplified by the psychological distance of hierarchies. Frances Miliken, who helped to pioneer the research into organizational silence, also studied how those in power communicate differently from those without it. Her language analysis showed a more common use of abstractions and a tendency to over-optimism. Experimentation showed that people given power demonstrate more stereotyped thinking. Further from the action, reinforced by a sense of their own capability, the combination of power, optimism and abstraction made them more confident of their own judgement. The more cut off from others, the more certain they were of their decisions about people and detail they did not know.
That it is a problem is obvious in catastrophes like the COVID pandemic and Hurricane Katrina or, in the UK, the fire at Grenfell Tower. In each case (and there are many more) big decisions are made by confident, optimistic people who think largely in abstraction. Some even regard this as an asset, as when one executive recently suggested to me that it would be better for layoffs to be decided by leaders too far from the action to know the people impacted by their decisions. Distance, dehumanization were seen as assets.
This is the third problem of power. Its status and rewards erode judgement. This isn’t wholly inevitable; a few leaders I’ve known have had the humility and tenacity to fight it, to reach into, rather than over, the crowd. But it is phenomenally difficult to disbelieve the worship of the crowd. If the world chooses to throw all these goodies my way, it must be because I’m worth it — mustn’t it?
I retain a visceral memory of this from the 1990s. Running tech companies, I saw many of my friends and colleagues get rich fast. They went from pretty humdrum individuals in January to exhilarated millionaires by June. And most of them believed the money.
It confirmed that they were special. They’d always thought that might be true, but here was proof. The rare few just put the money away and carried on before. When I asked them, saying they’d been lucky. They didn’t believe the money, seeing it instead as a market fluke. But most got sucked into a reaffirming circle: more money, more power, more confidence, greater distance from the crowd.
They make — and we make — the same mistake: an attribution error. It’s logical, but not necessarily true, that the success of an organization owes something to its figurehead. But how much? Did GE flourish because of Jack Welch or has it failed because of his legacy? Did Apple succeed after Steve Jobs’s return because of his unique magic, or did his hapless competitors’ lame innovation play a role? In the statistically implausible 41 quarters out of 42 that Microsoft met or beat its market forecast, was that the genius of Bill Gates or of his accounting team? If Johnson & Johnson is so well run, how did its role in the opioid scandal occur? If Fred Goodwin was, as celebrated by a Harvard Business School case study, the “master of acquisition,” why did the Bank have to be rescued by the U.K. government?
You can’t run the experiment. It’s impossible to cut the company in half and run half with one leader and half with another. So it is beguilingly simple to attribute success to the powerful individual at the top. And it is supremely difficult for most people, at the height of their power, to see how much their success owes to circumstance, the talents of others, the weakness of competition and to sheer luck. Easier to believe the money. Easier to believe the power.
Such attribution errors flourish in part because we feed them. Believing that a company or a country succeeds or fails because of one mighty person is simple and alleviates our anxiety. It turns a complex world into a simple narrative: we have only to change the person to change the story. Context, apparently, counts for nothing.
The problems of power are damaging not only for those with power — but for the rest of us too. The more we believe in the leadership myths, the more we absolve ourselves of responsibility and action: just wait for Superman or Superwoman to turn up, and everything will be fine. The costly investment in leadership training (said to be over $300 billion) is a sign not of its effectiveness but our urgent desire to simplify and to believe. Critics argue most of this money has no effect. The reality may be worse than that: worshipping leaders may exacerbate the problem it pretends to fix. As long as we believe in leaders, we need not examine our own failure to act on our values and insight.
Of course, all three problems of power feed each other. Failure to learn to think for oneself makes us more credulous of leadership, and it can paralyze those given power. Absence of conflict and debate perpetuates the problem. And if we make it to the top, years of passivity and conventional wisdom make it likely we will believe in our own celebration. This risks making us more aggressive; it can also make leaders justifiably afraid.
I’ve always been wary of the concept of leadership. In part, this was a language problem: when translated, the words duce and fuhrer had unpleasant connotations. We used to talk about bosses or managers but in the late 1970s, that started to change. This is also the period when American economic inequality began to increase markedly. Since then, the clamor for leadership has grown louder as inequality has become more pronounced. The expectation that a sole individual can, singlehandedly, alter complex realities has inflamed faith and guaranteed disappointment.
It’s time for a reset.
Problems of Power:
Pt 1: Pleasing