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Three Problems of Power—Problem Three: Distance and Dehumanization

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Three Problems of Power—Problem Three: Distance and Dehumanization

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This blog is provided by Margaret Heffernan, author of the book, “Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together.”  Margaret’s interview is also part of the International Leadership Association Interview Series.   It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled “Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together” that aired on Tuesday, January 19th, 2021. The past two weeks have featured the first two problems.  Problem one was Pleasing and problem two was Silence and Blindness.  This is the final week of the series.


Problem Three: Distance and Dehumanization

When CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld was driven from his home to a heliport, then helicoptered into Manhattan, driven in another limo to the bank’s offices where a private elevator sent him up to his office. This ornate commute ensconced him in a physical bubble that no weak signals or accidental encounters could penetrate. This physical manifestation of power may look like luxury but it comes at a cost. The bubble of power seals off bad news, inconvenient detail, hostile opinion and messy reality, leaving leaders free to inhale the rarefied air of pure abstraction. Like the cave dwellers of Plato’s parable, the powerful risk mistaking shadows for reality.  Power inserts distance between those who have it and those who do not. It determines whether you fly in the peaceful isolation of a private jet or the middle row in economy, next to the mother who needs help with her restless child. Power lets you, like the Google founders, arrive at meetings via paraglider, not stuck in San Francisco traffic.

The physical distance experienced by the powerful is amplified by the psychological distance of hierarchies. Frances Miliken, who helped to pioneer the research into organizational silence, also studied how those in power communicate differently from those without it. Her language analysis showed a more common use of abstractions and a tendency to over-optimism. Experimentation showed that people given power demonstrate more stereotyped thinking. Further from the action, reinforced by a sense of their own capability, the combination of power, optimism and abstraction made them more confident of their own judgement. The more cut off from others, the more certain they were of their decisions about people and detail they did not know.

That it is a problem is obvious in catastrophes like the COVID pandemic and Hurricane Katrina or, in the UK, the fire at Grenfell Tower. In each case (and there are many more) big decisions are made by confident, optimistic people who think largely in abstraction. Some even regard this as an asset, as when one executive recently suggested to me that it would be better for layoffs to be decided by leaders too far from the action to know the people impacted by their decisions. Distance, dehumanization were seen as assets.

This is the third problem of power. Its status and rewards erode judgement. This isn’t wholly inevitable; a few leaders I’ve known have had the humility and tenacity to fight it, to reach into, rather than over, the crowd. But it is phenomenally difficult to disbelieve the worship of the crowd. If the world chooses to throw all these goodies my way, it must be because I’m worth it — mustn’t it?

I retain a visceral memory of this from the 1990s. Running tech companies, I saw many of my friends and colleagues get rich fast. They went from pretty humdrum individuals in January to exhilarated millionaires by June. And most of them believed the money.

It confirmed that they were special. They’d always thought that might be true, but here was proof. The rare few just put the money away and carried on before. When I asked them, saying they’d been lucky. They didn’t believe the money, seeing it instead as a market fluke. But most got sucked into a reaffirming circle: more money, more power, more confidence, greater distance from the crowd.

They make — and we make — the same mistake: an attribution error. It’s logical, but not necessarily true, that the success of an organization owes something to its figurehead. But how much? Did GE flourish because of Jack Welch or has it failed because of his legacy? Did Apple succeed after Steve Jobs’s return because of his unique magic, or did his hapless competitors’ lame innovation play a role? In the statistically implausible 41 quarters out of 42 that Microsoft met or beat its market forecast, was that the genius of Bill Gates or of his accounting team? If Johnson & Johnson is so well run, how did its role in the opioid scandal occur? If Fred Goodwin was, as celebrated by a Harvard Business School case study, the “master of acquisition,” why did the Bank have to be rescued by the U.K. government?

You can’t run the experiment. It’s impossible to cut the company in half and run half with one leader and half with another. So it is beguilingly simple to attribute success to the powerful individual at the top. And it is supremely difficult for most people, at the height of their power, to see how much their success owes to circumstance, the talents of others, the weakness of competition and to sheer luck. Easier to believe the money. Easier to believe the power.

Such attribution errors flourish in part because we feed them. Believing that a company or a country succeeds or fails because of one mighty person is simple and alleviates our anxiety. It turns a complex world into a simple narrative: we have only to change the person to change the story. Context, apparently, counts for nothing.

The problems of power are damaging not only for those with power — but for the rest of us too. The more we believe in the leadership myths, the more we absolve ourselves of responsibility and action: just wait for Superman or Superwoman to turn up, and everything will be fine. The costly investment in leadership training (said to be over $300 billion) is a sign not of its effectiveness but our urgent desire to simplify and to believe. Critics argue most of this money has no effect. The reality may be worse than that: worshipping leaders may exacerbate the problem it pretends to fix. As long as we believe in leaders, we need not examine our own failure to act on our values and insight.

Of course, all three problems of power feed each other. Failure to learn to think for oneself makes us more credulous of leadership, and it can paralyze those given power. Absence of conflict and debate perpetuates the problem. And if we make it to the top, years of passivity and conventional wisdom make it likely we will believe in our own celebration. This risks making us more aggressive; it can also make leaders justifiably afraid.

I’ve always been wary of the concept of leadership. In part, this was a language problem: when translated, the words duce and fuhrer had unpleasant connotations. We used to talk about bosses or managers but in the late 1970s, that started to change. This is also the period when American economic inequality began to increase markedly. Since then, the clamor for leadership has grown louder as inequality has become more pronounced. The expectation that a sole individual can, singlehandedly, alter complex realities has inflamed faith and guaranteed disappointment.

It’s time for a reset.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.


About the Author

Margaret Heffernan is the author of the best-selling UNCHARTED: How to Map the Future Together, nominated for a Financial Times Best Business Book award. She is a Professor of Practice at the University of Bath, Lead Faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme and, through Merryck & Co., mentors CEOs and senior executives of major global organizations. She is the author of six books and her TED talks have been seen by over twelve million people.

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Avoid Friendship Problems: Use Mentalization

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Avoid Friendship Problems: Use Mentalization


There is considerable evidence that friendships enhance our physical and emotional well-being. A recent study by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago even suggests that the feeling of extreme loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 14 percent.
Culturally the notion of having and holding friends is passed on to us from early childhood:
“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet. Even longer,’ Pooh answered.”― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Despite the benefits, however, friendships are complicated and at times problematic. The key to avoid problems in friendships is to begin with you, the only person you can ever really know or control and to use mentalization.
• Psychologists describe mentalization as our reflective function—our capacity to reflect on our own feelings, needs, and expectations, etc., as well as our ability to consider other people has having their own separate set of feelings, needs, and expectations, etc.
• It is the recognition that your best friend may love you but actually feel differently about the party, the movie or the amount of time you spend together.
Five Potential Friendship Problems You Can Avoid
Consider how your capacity to self-reflect and see yourself and your friends from different perspectives can help you avoid the following:
Tired of It All:
• If you often feel that being with your friend or friends has become more work than it is worth, the first place to look may be your own authenticity. Are you being who you really are or are you always working at being the person you THINK your friends want you to be?
• As good a chameleon as you may be, eventually it becomes too much work. If you never get to be your true self, you will never be with friends who really match or compliment you. You will never just relax and feel accepted.
The last thing Mary wanted to do was read the books for the book group–but everyone else seemed to like it. She really wanted to go for a walk with a friend.
• In The Friendship Fix, author Andrea Bonior suggests that when you are trying to make new friends start by thinking about your own personality.
• What would you want to do if you suddenly had tomorrow off?
• Would you go to the beach and just do your own thing? Would you want to spend every moment with a friend who loves risky adventures? Would you be happy with a talkative friend because you are a great listener? Do you want a friend who has lots of time for you?
• Have you given much thought to the times when being with a friend has been really easy? How did you meet that friend?
• When is the last time you were just you in the company of a friend?
All For One and One for All
• No matter how wonderful you think it would be—the expectation that your friends will all get along and love each other is a problem in the making. The expectation that they will all want to wear the same thing in your bridal party or be happy to be matched up with partners they would never choose is for many–like adding insult to injury!!
• If you recognize your own multiple dimensions and roles as daughter, son, girlfriend, teacher, golfer, accountant, student etc. it is likely that you have friends that match certain aspects of you at different times and in different contexts throughout your life. That does not mean they match each other.
• Accepting that your high school friend is different than the guy who is your partner at work and that both are different than the guy who is your best wingman in the clubs allows each to be who they really are as friends to you. The relationship you have with each of them and they have with you is unique.
Frozen in Time
One of the greatest strains in friendships is the reality that with time things change. The expectation that over life’s journey you will give and get the same things from the same friends in the same way is a tall order.
I can’t believe that she doesn’t call me during the week now that she is married.
I can’t believe that they don’t want to hang out with our kids!
• Sometimes you are the one who struggles with flexibility of friendship roles over time and sometimes you have a friend or friends who can’t or won’t make the adjustment when your life changes.
• How realistic are your expectations? If you reversed the roles could you understand why two single guys might not want to hang out with your kids?
• Can you hold on to the friendship with redefined expectations? Is a discussion possible?
• Can you agree to disagree about what each of you now defines as the   friendship?
• If you can’t make the adjustment, can you hold on to the good memories of what you had without metaphorically throwing away those good old days?
Seduced by Social Media
• How much has social media enhanced or compromised the pleasure you get from friendships?
• Have you reunited with friends in cyberspace in a way that has been an unexpected gift on all sides?
• Are you, as Andrea Bonior asks, “ hoarding friends” to have a high number on Facebook or comparing and evaluating your life and pictures with everyone else, while overlooking the face-to-face intimacy of friends who want to be with you in the real world?
• Do you feel pressure to meet the expectations of the title, Best Friend Forever–“BFF”?
• Are you demanding more of friends because you feel you must identify someone as your BFF?
• Are you tolerating a friend who consistently makes you feel badly about yourself because you assume everyone has a “frenemy?”
Most of us shape and are shaped by the friends we have journeyed with throughout the chapters of our lives. Some of these friendships are constant, some are complex, some cannot sustain and some are yet to come.
As we journey our friendships will always benefit from our capacity to self-reflect and our openness to understand others.

Listen to this episode of Psych Up Live On Demand

Transformation Made Easy

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7th Wave
Transformation Made Easy


Tune into this week’s episode of Being Here with Ariel and Shya and discover how easy it can be to have a satisfying life without working on yourself or your “problems.”

Listen Live this Wednesday, March 18th at 9am PST / 12pm EST on the VoiceAmerica 7th Wave Network.

After this Wednesday, you can stream or download this episode and over 400 episodes on a wide variety of topics from our archives Here.

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