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Executive power trips: a positional or organizational problem?

In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Power Trip,” it is asserted that the nice folks rise to the top, and being at the top tends to corrupt these “nice guys” — turning them into tyrants that resemble people who have brain damage.

This article’s findings do not fully resonate with what I’ve experienced in Corporate America. What I have observed is that the “nice guys” (and gals) are promoted to middle management, where the intermingling of leading and doing requires more collegiality and influencing skills. The more driven, strong and empathy-lacking folks either self-select out or end up catching the eye of executives as “fast-track, high potentials” for their ability to “get things done,” “move mountains,” and put “company priorities first.” In effect, the ones who put the organization’s goals ahead of individuals’ goals end up getting more done for the company. As a result, these more aggressive types build a reputation on getting more done than the fair and balanced “nice guys” who work through the system, balancing the needs of people and organization.

In an administrative-driven, bottom-line corporate culture, the less empathetic (and some would say psychotic) get ahead quicker because their short-term results appear to be more impressive. The longer term effects of this behavior are unhealthy in terms of the damage incurred via the bulldozing approach to management. However, these negative effects are rarely considered as important as, say, a huge client win that brings in the revenue. Sure, most are aware of the sacrifices of short-term gain versus long-term gain, but in the end, if a company is purely bottom-line driven, then these sacrifices are generally considered acceptable.

From a leadership and organizational design perspective, there is no perfect approach. Design by its very nature is about optimizing for a certain set of goals at the expense of others. In design, trade-offs are part of the intellectual process, and creativity helps mitigate these trade-offs — by minimizing the downside and maximizing the upside effects. One cannot, for instance, design to optimize for longevity and quality and expect to be the least expensive option. Staying competitive means designing the organization and culture to cultivate the appropriate attitudes required to survive and grow. Design lives in context.

If your organization is designed to react quickly and effectively to a barrage of incoming challenges and threats, then designing for short-term outcomes may very well trump the need for long-term sustainability. Especially if turn-over costs are not incredibly high. But if your organization is tasked with developing or providing long-term value, consistency and quality, then promoting short-term leadership behaviors — similar to what I outlined above — will eventually lead to a culture that rewards putting the company’s immediate needs before employees’ individual needs, which will have a direct, downward effect on employee loyalty. And as any experienced organizational leader already knows, loyalty has a multiplier effect on long-term productivity.

Contrary to the position the WSJ article takes, I have observed that those who abuse power do so in response to the cultural cues that exist in the organization’s reward design system. Even the most power-tripping person knows to choose battles wisely — and if rewards are in place to drive empathetic (instead of “brain-damaged”) behaviors, driven leaders who see rewards as symbols of success will more likely spend their time chasing the rewards rather than fighting futile battles.

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