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Trap for Leaders: How Power Impacts the Brain and Relationships

New evidence suggests power has similar effects on the frontal lobes as brain trauma…When you feel powerful, you kind of lose touch with other people. You stop attending carefully to what other people think. Dacher Keltner, University of California, Berkeley

How ironic. The very power leaders rely on to galvanize others and get things done carries the seeds of power loss. Leadership is relational. The ability to produce followership flows from a connection that engages and elicits commitment. Yet there is a tendency for leaders, in embracing their power, to create distance with the very groups with whom they must stay connected. The old lament “power has gone to their head” perfectly describes this recent research finding. Professor Keltner describes how these frontal lobes of the brain, the empathy network, become impaired. “Through brain trauma, you become a sociopath. Our lab studies find if you give people a little bit of power, they look kind of like those brain trauma patients” by becoming less attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others.

The term sociopath has an interesting association with leadership. Sociopath is defined in various dictionaries as someone with antisocial personality disorder, lack of social conscience and only interested in their own personal needs with little concern for others. Being selfishly antisocial seems counter to leadership. If we were to conjure up leaders from the most-high-gone-mad Hall of Fame like Henry VIII or Adolph Hitler – we would likely be impressed both by their brilliance and their narcissistic insanity. As a recovering CEO, I can say that perhaps you have to be a little crazy to aspire to leadership or perhaps it drives you a little crazy once you get there. Either way, there’s a danger that the power inherent in being a leader can foster antisocial behavior that impairs relationships.

Part of the challenge of leading is willingness to make difficult decisions and hold others accountable by putting higher purpose and the greater good above individuals and selfish emotions. Up to a point leaders must be cold-hearted but beyond a certain point, it becomes dysfunctional. The delicate dance of leadership is to strike a balance that optimizes results and keeps stakeholder relationships committed, engaged and productive.

So what is it about leadership that causes leaders, often selected for their unique ability to focus and energize followers, to lose their “relational” glue? New York City Theologian and Pastor Timothy Keller, describes his take on marriage relationships and I think it applies more broadly: If two spouses each say, ‘I’m going to treat self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect for a truly great marriage. If leaders commit to treat ‘self-centeredness’ – starting with their own – as the main problem of an athletic team, business, or government, then there is real potential for greatness. Of course, the elements of worthy purpose, talent, and resources are necessary. However, there is no greater accomplishment for a leader or a coach than to help a group of individuals give up their sense of self-centeredness and entitlement in seeking to accomplish something really purposeful.

Yet success and power has a southerly magnetic pull that makes leaders especially vulnerable to entitlement. Entitlement is about feeling owed. It crowds out gratitude and attentiveness to others. The brain whispers in our ear that because we have worked hard, demonstrated talent and succeeded, we have earned the right to not be encumbered with the vagaries of those lowly, disagreeable, needy – employees, customers and other stakeholders. After all those years as the “thumpee” now it is our turn to be “thumper.”

Which explains why nothing is harder to overcome than success; success affords more latitude to distance ourselves from those gritty relationships so central to leadership. And distance imposed by leaders from the top is not just separation – it is exclusion. Exclusion is the defining leadership challenge of our time. Can anyone remember a time when issues of separation and exclusion were throwing off more heat: top 1 percent vs. bottom 99 percent, white vs. black, Muslim vs. Jew or Christian, women vs. men, right vs. left?

CEO pay provides one of the most tangible examples of the growing divorce between leaders and employees. From 1978 to 2013, rates of return on assets and invested capital in U.S. firms declined 75 percent while CEO compensation increased 937 percent. Worker compensation grew one third of one percent per year for this timeframe. Between 2003 and 2012 54 percent of S&P 500 earnings have gone to stock buybacks and 37 percent to dividends – that totals 91 percent for the benefit of owners.

Leaders who feel entitled to lose touch with followers evoke a specific kind of costly broken relationship – the popular term is disengagement. Last year when Gallup reported 70 percent of workers identified themselves as disengaged at work, these employees were simply admitting sociopathic tendencies – not caring about their work or even their fellow workers. Sociopathic leaders create sociopathic followers who return the favor – both are highly and even narcissistically committed to themselves. As organizations grow larger and more complex, this challenge of worker engagement only increases.

The growing need for engaged, productive stakeholders is not filled magically. It requires a specific, intentional brand of leading – Relational Leadership. Relational leaders prioritize relationships as their organization’s most valuable and value-creating asset. They resist the self-centered impulse to distance themselves from challenging relationships – even when it is difficult.

I work with a public-company CEO who in his early days with the company had to lay off 20 employees on a bleak Friday. The next day, Saturday, he invited them all back to the office, personally cooked breakfast for them, thanked them and told them “we still love you.” Yesterday, over 20 years later, I heard an employee at this same company tell that story again to a prospective hire as an example of their abiding culture. Attending to others is still our most powerful, lasting act.

Click here to read Trap for Leaders: How Power Impacts the Brain and Relationships, by Robert Hall on

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