Power Can Impair The Brain

Today we know a lot more about the brain than 15 years ago, thanks to research. We can learn how to change our brain to live more healthy and well.  We know the opposite is unfortunately also true.  Experiences such as power can change our brain, known as the Hubris syndrome, in ways that the effects are similar to traumatic brain injury.  Dacher Keltner from UC  Berkeley studied behaviors of people in power over the past 15 years in several fields, including business, higher education, politics, professional sports, entertainment, and the conclusion is that power can corrupt the brain. Behavior may resemble a manic state with actions that are expansive, energized, omnipotent, craving rewards, feeling immune to risks and resulting in an addictive pattern, thus continuing the cycle to crave more power. Studies confirm behavior may include acting in rash, rude, unethical ways toward others.

Sukhvinder Obni, neuroscientist from Canada and colleagues took a physiological approach and studied the neural impact of power on the brain with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Despite the controversial nature of this study, because TMS is not an exact science as pointed out by one of the neurologists on our team, we will interpret their conclusion that power impairs specific neural processes that imply functional changes of the brain with caution that needs further empirical evidence. 

Owen and Davidson  were the first to coin, analyze, and describe the occurrence of the Hubris syndrome in a study of world leaders in 2009.  Hubris, from ancient Greek origin, refers to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the person responsible for the wrongdoing. The grandiose thinking of hubris in  leadership may lead to overstated confidence, oversight of vital information at the cost of dangerous or expensive mistakes. Although the Hubris syndrome is not a DSM-5 diagnosis, it includes a combination of some of the symptoms from three personality disorders, namely Anti-Social, Histrionic, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Hubris syndrome also includes a few unique symptoms such as restlessness, recklessness, and impulsiveness; an unshakable belief that a court will find them blameless; and a tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’ to override practicality, cost, or outcomes.

These scientists also offered practical examples and evidence that the majority of people in power do not exhibit Hubris syndrome, because they will need to meet at least three of the criteria.  Powerful leaders need someone to keep them grounded  or being a ‘toe holder’ such as Louis Howe described himself in his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling on his first name. Keltner recommends that leaders keep on practicing mindful practices such as empathy, gratitude, and generosity that keep them connected to others who might have influenced their appointment in the first place.  Owen, who is a British neurologist turned parliamentarian and served as the foreign secretary before becoming a baron, admits that he has his own challenges to keep himself grounded.  He recommends the following strategies:

  • Thinking back on humbling hubris-dispelling episodes from the past;
  • Watching documentaries about everyday people;
  • Staying close to the heartthrob of constituents/team/people in your organization.

What are you doing to keep yourself grounded and mindful as a leader?

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