A bit of recent research confirmed what I’ve seen for many years: Power corrupts thinking. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, “feelings of power prompt leaders to verbally dominate and to resist others’ ideas,” resulting in a 17 percent decline in goal attainment. That’s a big deal! What CEO can afford to have that kind of deficit? Perhaps one who feels really powerful!
In my experience, this feeling of power doesn’t happen overnight. It’s much less like a flu virus and more like obesity. It takes a lot of Cheetos and time to get fat and you don’t develop a powerful self-image overnight.
I’ve written about the challenge of being certain rather than just confident. Donald Rumsfeld and Hugo Chávez were certain. Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln were confident.
Feeling powerful is one part position, one part genetic and two parts experiential. By definition, CEOs have position authority, and most also have the genetic material to be confident. The experiential part is what can be managed.
If you surround yourself with people who usually say yes, you’ll feel powerful. If you have no systematized way to get feedback about your performance, you’ll become powerful by breathing your own exhaust. If you don’t own failure, you’ll definitively have at least a 17 percent disadvantage. (If you truly believe you’ve never failed, you’re powerfully hopeless.)
The anecdotes to feeling powerful all involve some pain. (Please note, those of you who suffer from lack of self-esteem or confidence need another course of action!) You have to get your butt kicked occasionally (though utter humiliation has very negative impact). You need some people on your team who call bull hockey when they see it, and you can’t beat them up for it! Get a coach to sit in your team meetings and give you honest feedback about your performance. Make sure you don’t live in a bubble. Get out to the warehouse, talk with some customers, hell — go undercover if you have a good disguise. But don’t sit on mahogany row and allow your loyal assistant to deflect the tough messages.
Many years ago, I was CEO of a midsize company and had two private equity partners on my board. I grew weary of what I thought were silly questions and maneuvered to get them “under my thumb.” Another board member wisely and kindly took me to lunch and noted that I’d done a masterful job of putting them in their place but was now in great danger of making a big mistake. He was absolutely right. I left lunch feeling less powerful but more confident.