5 Sure Signs Power Is Going to Your Head

Last Updated May 31, 2011 12:30 PM EDT

Mahmoud Abdel Salam Oman, a former chairman of Egypt's Bank of Alexandria, was arrested Sunday night and charged with sexually abusing a chambermaid at the Pierre Hotel in New York.

First reaction: Doesn't he read the newspapers and understand this kind of thing doesn't go down well in New York?

Second reaction: This is the problem of power.

The perks of power are obvious - limos, private jets and, yes, the exclusive Pierre Hotel. But the problem is, in fact, harder to handle. The more powerful you are, the more likely it is that you will be over-confident, surrounded by sycophants and immune to debate and disagreement. Add a dose of money and it's easy to imagine that people are pawns for you to play with.

This isn't, of course, an excuse. But while it's tempting to dismiss both Oman and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF president arrested for alleged attempted rape of another New York hotel maid, as just misogynists, it might be more useful to consider something a little more challenging. These are both highly intelligent, educated, cosmopolitan business leaders.

You can't just say they're stupid. You can conclude something went badly wrong.

So what are the signs that power is going to your head?

1. There is little dissent in your office.

With great power comes great silence. If the people around you aren't arguing with you, then you aren't getting the best out of them. In his otherwise bromidic memoir, BP's former CEO, John Browne, admitted as much: "I wish someone had challenged, me," he wrote, "and been brave enough to say: 'We need to ask more disagreeable questions."

What's so interesting is that, even years after he resigned in disgrace for lying in court, he can imagine only one person (some one) challenging him; he's still can't imagine that everyone should be thinking for themselves.

By contrast, what many veterans of GE and Intel tell me is that these organizations were characterized by ferocious debate and dissent. If you didn't have an argument, you were deemed not to be thinking.

2. You're having lots of photo shoots.

Every time you see a posed picture of a CEO, remember: this took time. Those magazine covers and profile stories were allowed to consume hours and hours of precious time. This either means you are becoming narcissistic or already are.

London Business School's Donald Sull argues that once you're on a magazine cover, your days are numbered. It is very hard to believe you're fallible when the press is telling you you're not.

3. You have clones everywhere.

Look around. If everyone around you looks pretty much like you, something has gone wrong. It is human nature to prefer people like ourselves - decades of research into bias show that we all do this. It's dangerous because people who look like us and may even want to be us are highly likely to agree with us. What's unfortunate about this is that it is also highly likely that, sometimes, we'll be wrong.

4. Wayward behavior feels like a right.

I've worked with chairmen and CEOs who believed that their success guaranteed them a successful outcome for any initiative. This isn't as implausible as it sounds. If you've always been successful, and been highly rewarded for it, it's logical (though incorrect) to imagine that that string of successes is all down to you.

"I once talked to a group of men who'd all become millionaires before the age of forty and who'd had affairs," Emily Brown told me. She's a marriage therapist in Virginia and has seen a rich panoply of human behaviors. "They don't even see the danger! It isn't a love of risk. They think: the wives will never know, so where's the harm? Everything else in their lives has worked out, so they think they have some kind of magic, that they can have everything they want and they're invulnerable."

5. You speak in abstractions. A lot.

Research into powerful people shows they're more likely to use highly abstract language. If you are used to talking about people as things, the chances are you will start treating them that way too. The classic example is FEMA's Michael Brown: "We learned about it factually today that that was what existed. When we first learned about it, my first instinction [sic] was: Get somebody in there, give me truth on the ground, let me know ..."

How many of these symptoms can you see in yourself or your boss?

Illustration courtesy of Flikr user aka Kath C.C.2.0

Further Reading:

Are You Biased?
Why Steve Jobs Isn't Invincible
The Problem with Pay
image courtesy of flickr user, seamus_walsh

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.