We stand in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby scandals and so many other examples of the consequences of an imbalance of power in many walks of life – from charity workers in Haiti to TV personalities in the UK, right through to allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against members of the UK parliament and the President of the USA.
This is primarily a leadership blog, so I want to explore this issue of morality and behaviour from the point of view of the potentially corrosive effects of power and
how this can lead to the creation of abusive relationships.
In almost every case and certainly in all of the cases mentioned above, the perpetrator has used their power and influence initially to abuse others and then to prevent them from making it public or seeking redress. That is two separate and abhorrent abuses of power and privilege.
This is a complex issue with many influencing factors, but a couple are perhaps especially significant from a leadership standpoint:
- So many of those in positions of power are ‘alpha males’, a type that is often driven by the need to win, to dominate and to get their own way. These have long tended to be the personality types our society has viewed as those exhibiting ‘leadership credentials’ – perhaps a throwback to our primeval need for strong protectors and hunter/gatherer leaders
- Organisations are typically structured in a hierarchy which allows those individuals to make the rules and to create a culture or approach which reinforces their power and allows them, if threatened, to unite to protect each other and dismiss any challenges to their supremacy
Our western society has, for centuries, established a culture of deference to those who rule and more recently a cult of celebrity around leaders and all those with perceived power and status. This seems to create an exaggerated sense of self-importance and an entitlement – even a perceived immunity – in many of our most powerful that seems to trigger and exacerbate any latent tendencies toward abuse and exploitation.
Several things give hope that this trend is at least beginning to change:
- The ‘Me Too’ campaign is shining a light in many dark corners and empowering many of those who have been exploited to make public the abuse they have suffered – and from whom
- Increasing diversity in leadership teams and the pressure of both public opinion and legal redress is driving organisations to re-evaluate their attitudes, policies and approach
- Generation Z and millennials are becoming an ever-louder voice in society having grown up in a world with very different attitudes and values
- Social media is giving a voice to the public that enables far more whistles to be blown than ever before, allowing individuals to highlight prejudice, exploitation and organisational failures without the suppression or censorship of the powerful
All that is good, albeit long overdue, but the battle is by no means won. There remain many and widening divisions between the powerful and the powerless and, wherever there is a massive imbalance of power, abuse is easily possible or even likely. For example:
- The huge disparity of reward between those at the ‘top’ and those at the ‘bottom’ grows wider every year, increasing the gulf in power and authority of those at the ‘top’
- Parental and teacher attitudes often still differentiate between boys (who show leadership or assertiveness or drive) and girls (who are stroppy or bossy or difficult)
- Advertising, though becoming more focused on the female consumer as a target market, often remains stubbornly stereotypical in its portrayal of women as being the primary caregivers, driven by the need to be attractive and fashionable and obsessed with their hair, nails, clothes, and make-up
- Socio-economic groupings are reflected in so much of our sales-driven media, segmenting markets and encouraging individuals to adopt trends, attitudes and products that are ‘positioned’ to keep them in their ‘place’ and within their ‘tribe’
- Our cohort of senior leaders remains, at least in very many sectors and organisations, stubbornly middle-class, middle-aged, white and male
- Social background (what we used to call ‘class’) is still one of the most significant predictors of career success and financial health
This is a huge and complex subject, but something that organisations and their leaders need to reflect upon and consider whether they are through their attitudes, culture and behaviour making the situation better or worse…and what they might do to improve things for those at the greatest disadvantage in order to engage, empower and release innovation.
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The focus of much of our development and qualification of future leaders, the MBA for example, pushes the ‘hard’ aspects of finance, strategic planning and marketing and therefore delivers a ‘double-whammy’ in that it first reinforces the pre-eminence of those fields and secondly therefore attracts those from such disciplines into leadership roles. Add in the other ‘hard’ obsessions of target-setting, performance management and process and you end up with a cohort of managers who believe that their job is to deliver results, enforce compliance and chase for targets. Ask many (most?) leaders about the purpose of a commercial organisation and they will tell you that it is there to deliver a return on investment.
Let’s be clear. It is not.
Organisations are there to serve the needs of their stakeholders, which extends to many other groups beyond those with a financial interest. Customers, employees, suppliers, communities, regulators, regional or national economies and the UK itself – among many others – have a direct interest in the success and actions of an organisation.
Meanwhile, we have separated the ‘softer’ skills away from ‘management’ and labelled them as ‘HR’ or ‘Learning & Development’ or ‘Wellbeing’, allowing leaders to abdicate responsibility for those crucial aspects of the role and leave it to ‘the experts’. Make no mistake: as a leader, those should all be a key part of your skill-set and your accountability.
Now, I’ll happily accept that my use of the word ‘abuse’ in this context is both potentially inflammatory and subjective. However, I make no apologies: abuse comes in many forms. When it makes the evening news it is often at the extreme end of sexual or physical abuse, or as the consequence of some significant prejudice. Abuse in other forms is still however abuse, whether it is in the exploitation of the disadvantaged as low-paid labour, the refusal to allow employees a voice, the deployment of disengaging strategies such as temporary workers and zero-hours contracts, or the use of hardline management styles that create stress, make people ill and leave them feeling like machines rather than human beings.
The more leaders are able to view the ‘people’ as resources, a means of output or chattels, the greater the likelihood of abuse in some form. In recent years, I have heard various leaders refer to their workforce as cannon-fodder, the great unwashed, drones or simply the commonly used ‘head count’. All these terms are essentially de-humanising, encouraging and enabling leaders to view their people as different and lesser-beings that can be manipulated and used to deliver results.
It is not just those who look and sound like tyrants that concern me: one very enlightened CEO that I believe has a very people-orientated ethos and a history of trying to develop and empower workers called them the ‘ordinary people’ in conversation with me. It is indicative of a mindset that leaders are a form of ‘higher power’ and have the absolute right to hire and fire, target, punish, re-structure and re-deploy at will. The greater the distance between those ‘in power’ and those they preside over, the greater the incidence of exploitation and abuse.
We have so much evidence that power corrupts and we’ve seen that those in powerful regimes can easily become despotic, tyrannical and coercive – at its worst extreme, think about the Roman Empire, 1930/40s Germany, Apartheid, Libya, Mugabe, the Taliban – and it’s easy to think that has nothing to do with an organisation or its leaders today… but these things are just a consequence of human nature. At some level, they can happen anywhere.
Simon Sinek talks eloquently about this in his book and videos called ‘Leaders Eat Last’. Shawn Achor takes it in a slightly different direction in ‘The Happiness Advantage’. Margaret Heffernan has many useful things to say in this space, including her book ‘Beyond Measure’. Vlatka Hlupic’s ‘Management Shift’ and Philip Whiteley’s ‘New Normal’ are also real breakthrough pieces. I recommend all as food for reflection for every leader who wants to get better.