Shadow side of power



With the US Presidential Inaugural looming, many have grave concerns about how leadership and power will be exercised in the next four years. How will the new president and the leaders he appoints use the massive power and reach of the US Executive office.


Power is a highly charged resource with great potential for good or ill. We hope and expect that leaders will use their institutional power with self-awareness and emotional intelligence – that they will be vigilant and the face of flattery and manipulation. We expect them to realize that from others’ perspectives, when they speak, they roar.  When they walk down the halls, they shake the earth.  When they look at something, their glances are like lasers, and their opinions like magnets in a roomful of metal filings. This is because formal leaders carry both their own personal power and the power of their role – call it Power2. Power2 is high impact power. But Power2 also wakes up potent shadow forces in any leader’s personality. It’s not a question of IF but WHEN and HOW these shadow forces will make their presence known.


The following are seven ways the shadow side of power shows up when it has free reign. Any person in power will be tempted by all of them at some point. They range from lack of use (#1), to misuse (#’s 2, 3, 4, 5), to abuse (#’s 6, 7).


  • 1. Ignorance of the potential energy in a powerful role.  Think of Star Wars’ force saber or Harry Potter’s wand. Formal leadership roles come with sabers and wands that, in the hands of unaware leaders, can be misused or not fully leveraged. The first step into the shadow side occurs when leaders remain unaware of, and therefore dangerous in the use of, the power that comes with their role. The antidote to ignorance is awareness.


2. Myopia. Leaders are paid to make decisions that create impact over time – sometimes over a long period of time. However, there are many pressures to do whatever is expedient, often whatever will get the best publicity and the most adulation.  When this happens, the shadow side takes over – trading off the future for gratification today. The antidote to myopia is trifocal perspective – where decisions consider medium and long term, as well as short term, implications and stakeholders.


3. Reductionism. The decisions that formal leaders must make are usually the difficult ones that require complicated tradeoffs. It’s easy to default to an overly simple solution or single point of view, when multiple perspectives are what’s really needed. It can become “my way or the highway” – another default to the shadow. The antidote to reductionism is diversity of thought.


4. Abdication. When difficult problems arise, it’s easy to cite bureaucracy or to look for scapegoats.  For example, people on the front lines or in other institutions are often blamed for problems that are really due to leadership mistakes and even hubris. There can be strong shadow pressure within leaders to take the easy way out, avoiding ownership in these situations. Trust and credibility suffer. The antidote to abdication is accountability.


5. Cowardice. People in power need the courage to use it. They may easily give in to pressures when they are convinced a strategy or program is right but they fear loss of face or privilege if they keep on course. Alternately, they may stubbornly adhere to programs and commitments that are proven ill-conceived or wrong or not feasible.  The shadow easily steps into either breach. Important change commitments yield to image-saving retreat or compromise. And bad decisions and programs continue because the leader doesn’t want to admit to failure or the need for a better way. The antidote to cowardice is courage.


6. Abuse of rank. It is easy for Power2 to become a personal entitlement to special privileges or to flattery; a license to bully, operate in a dictatorial or power-over way, or distort information to serve personal purposes. This side of the shadow is very, very seductive and dangerous. Extreme narcissism may also be at work – “I am better than everybody else.” The antidote is respect and humility.


7. Corruption. Formal leaders can divert resources and agendas of entire institutions toward their own agendas or gain. When behavior crosses the line ethically, morally, or legally – jeopardizing the institution, its stakeholders, and the future — it is corruption. People who study ethical leadership conclude that if a person is in power long enough, s/he will become corrupt (possibly the best argument for term limits). Every leader needs to be vigilant, ready to detect this shadow force that may be lurking in the depths of his or her personality. It is another reason why self-awareness and a mature and humble, as well as competent approach to leadership are vital. The antidote to corruption is stewardship.


Power inevitably tests those who wield it.  The new leaders will be constantly pulled toward the shadow side. I wish for them the humility, stewardship capability, and emotional intelligence to to wisely use the mantle of power that they are now taking on.


Read more in The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for LeadersIt is a short story patterned after Dante’s Inferno that explores how easy it is for institutional leaders to use, misuse, and abuse power. It is also an invitation to use Power2 toward better outcomes for us all.


Pat McLagan advises leaders and organizations on development and change matters.







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