Power, Status and Strange Behavior

Pepper de Callier

As someone who has made a life’s work of studying leaders, I guess you could say I also have an interest in studying power and status—especially how the acquisition of power and status can change people.

As a young man I remember hearing the story of how a very prominent banker in my home town was being driven to the airport. Sitting in the back of the car with the banker was a friend of mine who could not believe what he heard as they were driven past a poor neighborhood on their way to the plane. The banker looked out the window and with a dismissive wave of his manicured hand in the direction of the run-down neighborhood said, “Why would people want to live like that?” Having no idea that to cut the grass, paint the house, or fix a broken window took money—money to buy the lawn mower, the paint and brushes, or the new pane of glass, which would compete with the money needed to eat and pay rent—the banker was totally detached from the reality of someone else’s world, especially someone less fortunate, less powerful, or less “important”.

What does this have to do with leadership as it relates to the world of business? Plenty.

I have seen this disconnected behavior exhibited many times by business leaders—mostly by leaders who couldn’t understand why their subordinates weren’t fully engaged or they weren’t ready to make the personal sacrifices needed to execute the leader’s aggressive plans of cost-cutting measures and efficiencies needed. I remember being summoned to such a meeting years ago at the request of a CEO in the aerospace industry who was perplexed that his people just “didn’t get it”. The industry was in a downturn and he needed to scale back dramatically to save his business—this was going to be a serious meeting with the top management of this division—and he wanted my input as to how the message was being presented and received.

The meeting took place in what was at that time the most exclusive hotel in Beverly Hills, which was followed by a sumptuous dinner and a breakfast re-cap the next morning. “Breakfast” was at 10:00 because this CEO never took meetings before 10:00. After breakfast he was whisked away by a chauffer driven BMW to a private jet that was rented especially for his visit. Later, when we met in his office on the east coast of America, I told him about the perceived disconnect between his professional lifestyle and the professional lifestyle he was asking of his subordinates. He would hear nothing of what I had to say. “I have earned the right to this and they’ll just have to accept that!” That was the last conversation I had with him. About a year later I read that he had sold the company to a competitor because he just couldn’t get it turned around.

I have also been called in to companies to try and “save” a bright and talented individual from a self-induced termination as a result of similar lapses of awareness or a lack of understanding of the cause and effect relationship between the way they were acting and the impact it had on those around them internally and externally.

Here’s how this applies to you today whether you are a leader or becoming a leader: Leaders are not born acting this way; they become this way by gradually disconnecting themselves from those whom they lead, which begins a downward spiral of career self-destruction. It begins with things like being chronically late to meetings, habitually interrupting others, cancelling or changing meetings at the last minute—or better yet, 15 minutes after they were supposed to start—with no regard for anyone else. It is a common phenomenon for people’s behavior to change as they attain more power and status, but it doesn’t have to be for the worse. Bill Gates comes quickly to mind, for example.

The most powerful attribute a leader can have is objective self-awareness. With this comes the knowledge of one’s behavioral impact on others and hopefully the wisdom to lead with empathy. As we wrestle with the challenges of globalization and doing business in the 21st century, the need for self-aware leaders has never been greater. As a CEO, a director, a manager, or a team leader, how aware are you of your developmental needs? This would be good time to reflect on this question before you get passed over for that promotion you’ve been wanting, demoted, or worse.