The pernicious effects of power

5 Apr

“A dean is to his faculty as a hydrant is to its dogs.”
– Lyman W. Porter, former management dean, University of California, Irvine

The Dean’s Disease: How the Darker Side of Power Manifests Itself in the Office of Dean demonstrates that academic administrators are unaware of how power changes their thinking and behavior. I’ve seen this havoc up close and personally: I’m a former university administrative faculty member, and my husband is a tenured professor. This article, however, applies broadly to organizations in general — leaders in all types of organizations present with many of the same symptoms.

Author Arthur G. Bedeian identifies three causes for the Dean’s Disease:

  • Doppelgängers. Closed inner circles of sycophants develop, while dissenting voices are shut out. Deference to the dean creates a protective cocoon that shields out reality. This effect is especially dangerous in academia, as profit-driven business leaders are less able to shut out reality if financial results are bad.
  • Strategic praise. Thanks to the sycophants, deans begin to believe they are, indeed, special.  “Unless new ideas belong to power holder, old positions must be defended regardless of whether they have been shown to be outdated.” This concept is not unique to academia, unfortunately. Sadly, I once worked for a power-driven individual who believed that the only good idea is one of his, regardless of whether the environmental factors in the outside world had changed the defensibility of his concepts.
  • A taste for power. Those in power want to maintain it, whether in government, academia or business. This can lead to morally questionable decisions made in interest of maintaining power. “As a way of rationalizing their actions, power holders devalue the worth of others and act to distance themselves from those less worthy.” They are afraid of strength in their associates. This happened to me in corporate life, with the aforementioned boss (because I had new ideas which were different than his!), and it was painful and demoralizing.

One of Bedeian’s observations I loved: True leaders generally find it unnecessary to employ power associated with their position. Weak leaders rely on coercive or reward power. A true leader relies on referent power – power that attaches to individuals because people admire them or are impressed by their integrity – or expert power, based on possessing special knowledge or skills. The best leaders I’ve ever worked for acquired power in these two ways, and that made all the difference.


One Response to “The pernicious effects of power”

  1. Rena August 6, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    Your story was really ifnoratmvie, thanks!

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