The disease of power

A significant percentage of the adult population (30%?) suffers from behavioral disorders. The figure also applies to executives. Actually, it’s probably higher for them. The fact is, executives work in the kind of environments that by nature (pressure, competitiveness, risk, abundance of rewards, etc.) may be more destabilizing than those of the average person.

A behavioral disorder is a “defect” (a disease, an oddity) in one’s behavior resulting from a cognitive distortion. In other words, having a behavioral disorder means “automatically” engaging — even if for no reason at all — in a pattern of dysfunctional behaviors derived from a partial, distorted or unbalanced view of reality. Most behavioral disorders are acquired, not inborn. The brain is impressionable. It learns through repetition.

The oddities of behavior almost always stem from psychological disorders. If someone interprets reality in an unbalanced way, it is understandable that their behavior would be equally unbalanced, as the byproduct of a very weak logic that, at the same time, causes dysfunctional outcomes.

All conduct disorders come from poor “nourishment” (fast food!) of the four basic emotional desires mentioned in the previous section: safety, fun, uniqueness and connection. The five most frequent behavioral problems among executives are easily attributable to the mismanagement of those four basic desires. Let’s take a closer look.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (circular thinking) is associated with the need for safety; asocial disorder (the lack of scruples), with the need for uniqueness; addictive disorder (being hooked on a source of pleasure), with the desire for fun; histrionic disorder (“theatrical” overreaction to the environment), with the desire for connection; and, lastly, narcissistic disorder (viewing oneself as the center of the world), with the needs for both fun and uniqueness.

Power can be one of the causes of executives ending up with behavioral problems. The reason is simple: power leads to disorders when it is used as a means to satisfy the basic emotional desires by dissociating it from the advanced desires for personal improvement and contribution to others.

For practical purposes, power causes illness when the criteria of personal improvement and contribution to society take priority over respecting certain uncrossable red lines in exercising their power. When the attitude is “anything goes as long as I’m not caught,” those red lines are definitely being crossed. Decisions based on purely short-term, financial criteria also trample on those red lines.

The Spanish newspaper Expansión recently published an interesting article titled “The Pathology of Power,” by Fernando del Pino, who described the most common symptoms of the disease of power. Most of them are the expression of asocial and narcissistic behavior disorders with some additional aspects that we describe here, based on the article by del Pino:

  • Indifference to what others think; difficulty when it comes to connecting intellectually and emotionally with those they interact with.
  • Coldness towards the feelings of others. Disconnection with the suffering that their decisions can cause.
  • Decisions based on an unbalanced reading of the game of rewards and punishments. The potential negative consequences of the decisions being made are underestimated and the probability of the positive consequences of those decisions is overestimated.
  • Loss of the sense of risk or proportion in the type of priorities that guide the institution.
  • Instrumentalization of people to achieve their own ends.
  • Excessive personal glorification by appropriating the merits of others.
  • Tendency to surround oneself with “yes-men”: individuals with little intellectual and economic independence, who won’t contradict them and will always applaud them and laugh at their jokes.
  • Simplistic, stereotyped view of people and events.
  • Overstatement of personal capabilities and personal image.
  • Uninhibited behavior; the feeling that they have the right to shed conventional social and moral “clichés” and are therefore free to do whatever they want. This often gets reflected in some — or many — of these behaviors:
  • Demoralizing others publicly and privately with humiliation, outbursts, etc.
  • Stealing in any sense of the word, or simply through excessive compensation (i.e., wages, pensions, severance package).
  • Seeking sexual gratification by abusing the position of power or the attraction of the money that you have.
  • Excesses in food, drink and the use of stimulants.
  • Overspending without regard to the negative image created.

An easy remedy: If four or more of these ten symptoms are observed, it is better to act quickly and forcefully. No one wants power to make them ill or corrupt. It is a great betrayal of oneself and the institution they work for.

The mind is impressionable and sickens if misused. Those who feel powerful but don’t feel equally fragile are kidding themselves, and will end up paying for it.

The companies with executives who show the symptoms of the disease of power will become their hostages, victims of not taking measures soon enough.