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Power Corrupts, But Does It Have to Corrupt You?

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Written by: Karin Hurt and David Dye

Power Corrupts – How to Avoid Losing Your Leadership Soul

It was a heartfelt question. A young manager approached us after a Winning Well workshop and asked, “I’m not sure I want to be a leader. I keep seeing people get promoted – they were good people – but then they get into higher positions and they turn into jerks. It’s like the power goes to their head. Do you have any advice on how to not let that happen?”

We love this question. It gets to the heart of what we mean by confident humility.

We’re not talking about the senior leader who has to make tough business decisions that may not yet be understood. And we’re not talking about the manager who sets clear expectations, holds people accountable and has the necessary tough conversations to help their people grow. (We frequently hear of people being accused of being jerks when people don’t like the message.)

What we’re talking about are the all-too-common situations like a manager who treats people poorly because their position lets them get away with it. Or the Vice President who demands unethical behavior and cultivates a FOSU culture (fear of speaking up.) Or the Director who uses sarcasm and shame to “motivate” performance.

There’s a reason for the cliché that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Healthy Leaders

There are several steps you can take to guard yourself against the perils of power.

1) Plan for the End

Are you familiar with how George Washington did this? After serving two terms as the first President of the United States, President Washington did something revolutionary. He voluntarily gave up power by refusing to run for a third term.

In that era, it was a massively different way to view power – as a temporary trust to be used on behalf of others and then passed on. His example set a precedent for US Presidents. (The two-term limit wasn’t made law until 1951.)

You can do the same thing.

Plan for your exit and your successor, even if it’s your own business. A true sign of great leadership is what happens after the leader walks away. Invest in developing the people and the processes that will ensure progress, especially after you are gone. (And “leaving” your current position may mean taking a new one with greater responsibility.)

Related: The Cost of Ignoring Your Emerging Leader’s Ideas

Related: How to Overcome Negativity at Work

2) Clarify Your Values

Get very clear about your values. Write them down. This is good work to do with a coach. What matters most to you? What values do you need to live with integrity every day to have a successful life? After you get incredibly clear about these values, you can measure yourself against them each week.

3) Build a Board

In healthy companies, the Board of Directors serves as accountability for the CEO. You can also build a personal board of directors. These are three to five people in your life who will hold you accountable, with whom you can speak confidentially, and who care about your success. Give them permission to challenge your thinking and especially to call you out on integrity lapses or abuses of power.

We have benefitted from this collection of mentors, sponsors, mastermind groups, and colleagues who do this for us. We can test ideas and strategies with them: eg “Does this feel in alignment to my values? What problems do you see? What am I not thinking about that I need to?”

4) Channel Challengers

Your team can be an incredible source of accountability and help you lead in alignment with your values. We have both had team members tell us, “You’re not leading like yourself anymore. What’s going on?”

This level of trust isn’t built overnight. You earn your team’s trust with how you invite (not just wait for) feedback and how you react when you receive it.

Your Turn

It’s easy to lose your perspective and become the power corrupts cliche – but it doesn’t have to happen. When you invest in your people, reflect on your values, and invite people to hold you accountable, you’ll stay centered in confident humility and build lasting influence.

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