Are you addicted to power?

Leadership + Management


Manfred Kets de Vries wants top executives to ask themselves: Do you like telling people what to do? Do you define yourself very much by your title and net worth? Do you always need to win? Do you enjoy the special treatment that comes with your position? Do you like to impress people? 

“If your answers are affirmative, it may suggest that you are too attached to power and all its trappings,” says the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change at Insead. “If that’s the case, you’re hardly alone. You should realise, however, that power is corrosive. History is full of power addicts who ultimately destroyed themselves.”

Kets de Vries basic hypothesis is that those who strive for power are trying to overcome original feelings of powerlessness. The desire for control is often a weakness disguised as strength, he muses and points to a number of powerful people who were neglected or powerless when they were young. The pursuit of power may also have a neurochemical component. Power boosts testosterone, which in turn increases the supply of dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) in the brain’s reward system. This dopamine rush explains the addictive quality of power. Unfortunately, the greater the power, the greater the dopamine rush and the greater the potential for abuse.

In democracies, a system of separation of powers exists to reduce the risk of political leaders turning into power addicts. Business organisations, however, are not democracies and thus face a greater challenge. “To prevent abuse in the business world, institutional measures need to be put into place. Traditional countervailing factors to business’s top-heavy designs include the press, trade unions and citizen advocacy organisations,” observes Kets de Vries.

360-degree leadership feedback and culture audits can indicate potentially troubled areas. “Most helpful would be the existence of an organisational culture where people would have a healthy disrespect for their bosses. When people can speak their mind, it helps keep the people in power tied to reality.”


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