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Jeffrey Pfeffer
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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

The Arrogance of Power

Research in social psychology consistently reveals the corrupting effects of power: disinhibition and a diminished focus on those with less power. Influence distances those with it from those with less influence. At the same time, the ability to understand another's point of view, and to put oneself in the other's place, is one of the most critical factors that affects ability to obtain influence and is a critical skill for everyone, including organizational leaders.

All of this is to make the point that although auto executives flying to Washington on private jets as they beg for government help and financial industry leaders paying out lavish bonuses even as they get government bailout funds is certainly inappropriate, even stupid behavior, it is far from unusual or incomprehensible. The higher you go in an organization, the more those around you are going to tell you that you are right. The higher reaches of organizations--which includes government, too, in case you slept through the past eight years--are largely absent of critical thought. That makes it tough for leaders to understand the point of view of others or, for that matter, to uncover problems or to figure out effective strategies.

There is also evidence, including some wonderful studies by business school professor Don Hambrick at Penn State, that shows the corroding effects of ego. Leaders filled with hubris are more likely to overpay for acquisitions and engage in other risky strategies. Leaders ought to cultivate humility. They certainly need to build cultures in which people can and will disagree with them over substantive decisions. They ought to get out and experience the world as others see it--maybe actually meet customers and shareholders, and they need to talk less and listen more.

But don't hold your breath waiting for any of this to happen. The few leaders who "get it" tend to preside over more effective organizations. The rest cruise along until their arrogance and insensitivity catches up with them.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  February 2, 2009; 11:28 AM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Jeffrey -
I read your post on SmartBrief. Terrific!
It inspired me to write a post on my own blog, Great Leadership, called “10 Ways to Avoid the Arrogance of Power”:
http://www.greatleadershipbydan.com/2009/02/10-ways-to-avoid-arrogance-of-power.html
Dan

Posted by: dmccart3 | February 4, 2009 8:56 PM
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For all three decades of her very successful executive career in advertising sales management a lady chose NOT to have her nameplate displayed at the front of her desk, but instead put there a small nameplate-like sign that said only "EMPATHY." It served as a constant reminder to any staffer sitting across from the desk an idea they must never forget. A closely-related idea to be remembered is that the meaning of a communication is always defined by the perspective of the receiver, not the sender.

Posted by: JimTheLeaderMakerGroup | February 3, 2009 11:33 AM
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Fred Smith at FedEx 'get's it". He recently took a 20% pay cut, then asked managers to take a 10% cut and hourly workers 5%. That strikes me as a leader who understands how to motivate people and instill loyalty, even in tough times.

Posted by: tleach1 | February 3, 2009 8:21 AM
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