The psychology of power in leadership

Leaders carry and use their power in different ways; compare the influence of Mahatma Ghandi opposing British rule or Nelson Mandela’s stand against apartheid with the brutality of Stalin and the ruthlessness of drug lords such as Pablo Escobar. No doubt about it, leaders can be either heroes or villains or both and their execution of power is well known. Power, though, is not just held by the famous and the high and mighty. Most people, to some degree, have power. With the diversity of complex social structures (business, school, parenting, personal and social relationships, managing the local soccer team) we nearly all have the possibility of wielding some ‘power’.  

Which of us is not affected by the wielding of a leader’s power? At a macro level the British are affected by the (then) Prime Minister’s decision to offer a referendum on leaving Europe. The Australians by decisions on immigration, and the Americans by the president’s policies on imports and exports. At a micro level, we are all subject to leaders’ decisions (your son or daughter being picked, or left out of, the soccer team for example) and we, in turn, make these decisions ourselves every day whether that be running our own organisation, or our policies and decisions for parenting. We will discuss these issues as well as think about the difference between power and leadership in this article on psychology power and leadership.

I am sitting at the side of the rugby pitch with other parents listening to the coach. Our children, thirty or so, are warming up and throwing a rugby ball around some distance from us. The coach is explaining what he/the club are trying to achieve in the coming season. The focus is on doing well in the league, the team were second place last year he wants to be first this year. Boys who turn up to train twice a week will be picked over those who miss sessions, ‘We want to get the discipline right’. The coach has some good points to make, and we want our kids to stick to their commitments and develop discipline. One of the parents at the end wants to ask a question, ‘What about having fun and making some mates?‘ he asks. The coach makes a (fairly feeble) attempt to assure the dad that we will be practicing discipline and commitments and having fun as well. What are the dynamics involved here? The coach has certain goals and expectations, and the dad has concerns about being able to meet those demands. The coach also has the power to choose or exclude team members depending on the players’ performance (or more accurately his perception of the players’ performance). It’s a lot of power and those with young children, or those who remember being involved in teams as children themselves, will know how these decisions can loom large in the life of a youngster.

Magee and colleagues maintain that most leadership research focusses on four areas (Charisma, Leadership Style, Perceptions of Leadership, and Processes/Interactions between leaders and followers) but that often the psychological responses of leaders are neglected i.e., what happens to the psychological state of a person who is in a position of power? In our example above, how would it feel to move from being a player to being coach/manager and what effects take place at a psychological level? What is interesting here is not so much the inherent personality traits of leaders e.g., the study of the common presence of extroversion or neuroticism but the way in which someone is affected psychologically by experiencing power and how this might best be managed.

Power versus leadership

First let’s attempt to define a difference between leadership and power. Leadership we can think of as the role of guiding others through a process. Literally, a walk leader knows the route and walks at the front, perhaps pointing out areas of interest and hazards along the way. Power, on the other hand, is the ability to have your will done but not necessarily positively and not necessarily bringing others with you but in the sense of achieving personal goals. Anderson and Berdahl offer a clear definition of power as:

The ability to provide or withhold valued resources or administer punishments”

and in contrast to this, leadership as:

 “Persuading other people to set aside for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare of the group” (Anderson and Berdahl, 2002).

Perhaps our rugby coach can successfully, in the short term, exert his will by having the power to exclude (punish) but may need to consider the whole group. The parents’ wants, as well as the needs, feelings, and, thoughts of the players, before he can effectively lead. The two concepts of leadership and power are obviously strongly connected, as those with power are normally also responsible for leading, but not all people with power are effective leaders.

Does power corrupt?

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the famous aphorism attributed to the 19th century Lord Acton. Aphorism or not, Acton’s assessment of power has since been studied by psychologists and work in the 1970s certainly seems to support the notion that when people are presented with power, certain psychological dynamics change; that we may feel in more ‘control’ of subordinates and to value them less than we did prior to the presence of power- egocentrism. Abuses of power are thought to be magnified in those who are thrust into positions of power; for example, a man who had a tendency towards sexual harassment prior to being given power, may have this tendency increased with the addition of power. So, what is happening here? One theory is that the presence of power may cause the individual with power to become uninhibited and that said individual will then more freely pursue a goal- be that goal heroic or demonic!

The approach theory of power

The approach theory of power relates to the way in which we behave when we are given power versus lacking it and a central point here is that certain behaviour becomes less inhibited with the presence of power. In empirical investigations numerous studies have shown a tendency towards taking action amongst those with power- essentially, they become disinhibited, and action orientated. This action can both be for the greater good (e.g., actively pushing forward a charity) or self-interest i.e., directly seeking self-serving actions and taking more for themselves. So, we see a problem here. Firstly, the drivers of taking action are not always altruistic or focussed on the needs of the many and, secondly, taking action is not always the right thing to do! Think of a scenario where the right thing to do would be to not take any action. See Galinsky, et al for a great example where an experiment run by Ward and Keltner (1998) had people placed into a position of power as ‘evaluators’ who were more likely to be disinhibited in relation to both consuming food and table manners. In this study the evaluators, when given power, were more likely to take the last cookie when it meant leaving others without… and then chew with their mouth open dropping crumbs everywhere- compared to the relatively inhibited subjects without power.

Further experiments on the effects of power have corroborated the points made above- Galinsky and colleagues (2000 had participants write about a time when either a) they had been in a position of power over someone else (high -power) or b) write about a time when someone else had power over them (low-power). This process is in fact a power primer i.e., a technique to either increase or decrease feelings of power. The participants were led to believe that this task was unrelated to the main task, which was to write an end to a fairy-tale like story relating to a king who set off and waged war, and whilst he was away needed someone to whom he could entrust the safety of his daughter. The results were that high-power primed individuals wrote of a king quick to act and decisive and the low-power primed individuals created a more hesitant and cautious ending. This at least suggests a difference in cognition between periods where we feel more powerful and times when we do not. To back up this experiment and the hypothesis that those in power-primed positons are more likely to be action orientated, Galinsky and colleagues repeated the power-priming we describe above but this time had participants sit with a fan blowing strongly directly at them while they wrote. What happened then was the power-primed individuals were much more likely to stand up and switch the fan off or move it, whereas the low power-primed individuals would sit and do the work with the fan blowing in their faces…

Being given power affects how we behave even when we have a less dominant personality type.

So, power increases our tendency to approach behaviour and also decreases our tendency to inhibited behaviour. We feel powerful, and now stomp across the board room carpet cramming that last cookie into our mouths (presumably with a subordinate looking on hungrily) with crumbs dropping all down our $5000 suit, whilst loudly carrying on a conversation at the same time!

This seems like an entirely negative consequence of power but let us also consider that in the presence of power we are more likely to express ourselves freely (essentially a lack of inhibition in expressing opinion openly for example) surely a good thing? essentially what is happening is that the high power individual has less constraints and concerns relating to others when it comes to approach behaviours they can be less cautious because the consequences are likely to be less negative than a low power individual who, by merit of needing to keep In the good books of those with significant power, will act with more inhibition.

We need also to consider personality dominance in this situation of raising and lowering power i.e., what if the person given higher power status has a more or less dominant personality? Essentially having a more dominant personality is implicated in a person’s sense of power and their subsequent approach/inhibition but the relationship between power status persists irrespective of having a dominant/non-dominant personality type… (i.e., being given power affects how we behave even when we have a less dominant personality type). This leads us to the point where we need to consider how best to lead when met with the evidence that power does seem to ‘corrupt‘. Maybe we have all experienced this at some point? Think back to a time when you had the power… you were the leader, the team captain or the person making the decisions. What does it feel like? Was there a certain degree of euphoria? An impact from knowing, ultimately, you get to make the decisions?

Dr Trevor Simper
Motivational Interviewing

Trevor is an MI trainer, coach, researcher, University lecturer and practising psychotherapist. He delivers Motivational Interviewing Training in Perth, for beginner to advanced level MI practitioners via workshops and coaching .  If you would like to read more about Trevor and his workshops on Essemy click this link.

References and further reading

Anderson, C. and Berdahl, J.L., 2002. The experience of power: examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(6), p.1362.

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D.H. and Anderson, C., 2003. Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological review, 110(2), p.265.

Magee, J.C. Gruenfeld, D.H.  Keltner, D.J.  Galinsky, A.D. (2004) The Psychology of Leadership: New Perspectives and Research.

Galinsky, A.D., Gruenfeld, D.H. and Magee, J.C., 2003. From power to action. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), p.453.