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THE POWER PARADOX AND BRAIN: Why leaders lose the traits that led them to success

THE POWER PARADOX AND BRAIN: Why leaders lose the traits that led them to success
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Midjourney


Have you achieved serious career success? That’s great! Became a big boss? That’s great! It’s time to get a toe-hold. Otherwise, your brain, under the influence of the «power paradox», will gradually begin to lose touch with reality.




Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, set out to study the dynamics of behavioral changes in people vested with power. The research, which took Keltner more than 20 years, showed that their behavior changes over time and, unfortunately, not for the better.

According to Keltner, the people at the top of the social hierarchy — CEOs of private companies and public institutions — behave as if their brains are deeply traumatized. The longer they are «at the helm», the worse their risk assessment is. Their behavior becomes more impulsive, they are more often guided by their «desires» than by common sense.

Perhaps this is a side effect of the degradation of empathy, the ability to look at what is happening not only from their own perspective, but also through the viewpoints of others.




The results obtained from years of experimentation allowed Keltner to formulate a kind of law that he called «The Power Paradox».

It consists of the fact that there is a particular set of qualities that allow a person to gain power and reach a certain top in the social hierarchy. However, having climbed to this top, he loses, though not all, but some critical abilities that led him to success.

As a consequence, the psychological ability to objectively and adequately assess himself, others, and new circumstances decreases. Not surprisingly, behavioral changes in leaders affect the results and quality of management.




Dacher Keltner is a psychologist, not a brain scientist. But his intuition as a scientist turned out to be correct. A colleague’s hunch was confirmed by Sukhwinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University. From the study of behavior, the scientists moved to the study of the brain, connecting to it a device for transcranial magnetic stimulation.

After digging into the heads vested with power, Obhi found a common characteristic for all these people — they are weakened by a number of neural processes. First of all, the ability to «reflect» emotions and viewpoints and to understand the motivations of others is impaired.

Thus, confirmation of the paradox of power at the neurobiological level was found. In addition, power impaired the ability to read other people’s feelings from photographs and to predict the reactions of others to certain words and actions.




An empathy deficit in a leader has the potential to become a serious management problem. The road to power does not take place in a vacuum; it takes place in an environment of many people. The person who is able to effectively influence others, i.e., has increased political and emotional intelligence, becomes influential.

In many respects, this efficiency is determined by the specificity of feedback: mirroring emotional and other reactions allows the creation of an atmosphere of trust. But often, power acts on a person as a switch that disables the brain’s ability to simulate someone else’s experience.

And now let’s remember that subordinates tend to unconsciously copy their bosses: communication style, expressions, gestures, body language… And now you are in a room of mirrors, where only you alone are reflected. By adapting to the boss, who is unable to «repeat after others», subordinates cease to be a reliable channel of feedback for him.


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Mirroring is, in fact, a variant of mimicry, like that of a chameleon, only psychological. In this case, in a normal, healthy state, the brain generates a sympathetic response automatically, regardless of our desire or will.

Even when the subjects were told in detail about the effect of mirroring and asked to consciously regulate this process, the results of the experiments were not affected. There was no difference between the conscious and unconscious «ruler».

Obhi’s experiments with surrogate experience showed that the brains of students, even with a single memory of the experience of power, reduced this response. Now imagine the brain of a person who almost every day finds confirmations of his greatness — in analytical reports on successes, in press publications, in the words of subordinates, and so on.




Such «bombardment» with success, flattery, and fame leads not only to a sense of greatness — that would be half the trouble. It definitely provokes functional changes in the brain — in the direct medical sense.

Neurophysiologist Jonathan Davidson, who has studied various brain pathologies for many years, called this phenomenon «The Hubris Syndrome» He described it as follows: «It is a disorder caused by the possession of power, especially power associated with exorbitant success, held for years and with minimal constraints placed on the leader». Davidson identified as many as 14 clinical symptoms of this brain disorder.

These include such things as contempt for people, loss of contact with reality, careless actions, and the display of incompetence in the guise of supercompetence.




So why does power affect the brain in this particular way? Scientists believe that something similar happens when we are somewhere very high above the ground and do not distinguish small details. The higher we climb the social ladder, the more the brain begins to ensure efficiency by ignoring peripheral information. Including that on which our social capabilities and movement up the social hierarchy previously depended.

At some point, the brain stops seeing other people as some kind of developmental resource. This can provide advantages in specific contexts, but it can also be a source of counterproductive behavior. Or it can form the habit of making decisions relying only on one’s own stereotypes. After all, information about other people’s reactions and opinions, and therefore, a more «three-dimensional» perception of reality, is no longer available.




Ancient societies and traditional cultures developed whole systems of rituals that symbolically «humiliated» the greatness of those in power, thus returning their brains to «default settings». Today, of course, no one would recommend treating the brains of presidents of companies and states with insults and slaps.

As Marcus Aurelius correctly observed, «Our life is what our thoughts make it». Psychologists say that for healing, you do not need to change the position — it is enough to practice the way of thinking of a person who does not have power. For example, more often remember the times when you were not yet a big official or businessman, situations in which you were defenseless and vulnerable.

For example, such a memory can be a certain disaster experienced in childhood. But there’s an important point here, too. Raghavendra Rau, a professor at the University of Cambridge, argues that executives who have experienced such an event without significant loss are just as risk-averse as those who have not had such a traumatic experience.




But more often than not, our loved ones serve in the role of those who bring us down to earth. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi recalled with gratefulness how, at the prime of her career, she learned to contain her anger when her mother sent her to the store to get milk.

Clementine, Winston Churchill’s wife, could point out to him that he wasn’t as kind to people as he used to be. It was not just a matter of love for her husband. With purely English practicality and a sense of duty, she noted that Winston stopped listening to the ideas of others.

Moreover, he ignored even very good ideas and thus could not be maximally effective as prime minister. Franklin Roosevelt’s advisor, Louis Howe, called himself the one who «holds the president by his toes», not letting him get too off the ground. At such times, he allowed himself to be famously addressed by the president as «just Franklin».


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