Ever experienced the agony of watching a respected leader gradually lose the skills and abilities that were essential to their rise—especially the ability to read other people? Over at the Atlantic, in Power Causes Brain Damage, Jerry Useem highlights a number of stories demonstrating this fatal loss in business contexts and the horrendous consequences that followed. There’s much for churches and Christian institutions to learn here too.
Useem quotes the historian Henry Adams who described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” That observation from history has now been backed up scientifically by Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, who found that people who gained power “acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”
Another scientist put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, and found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. This is what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, explains that “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others.”
Lord David Owen, a British neurologist turned parliamentarian who served as British foreign secretary founded an organization called Daedalus Trust to study and prevent “Hubris syndrome,” which is defined as a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and excessive self-confidence.
We’re seeing the fruits of that all around us in the daily headlines about Hollywood, the media, politics, sport, and even the Church.
What can be done? One suggestion is to encourage the leader to remember when he was powerless. Another suggestion is to watch documentaries about ordinary people. Politicians are advised to read constituents letters. Another more likely remedy is a good wife (or husband), as illustrated in Winston’s Churchill’s wife who once wrote to him:
“My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming”—with the attendant danger that “you won’t get the best results.”
Obviously, as Christians, we would trace this problem to heart damage—specifically to the heart sins of pride and vanity—and our solutions would also involve repentance and faith. However, this research reminds us of the physical consequences of sin, and how difficult it can be to undo. It also offers some common grace preventatives and remedies which may have some role in addressing hubris syndrome. The biggest preventatives though are to walk humbly with our God and to have someone in our lives who will have the courage to tell us the honest truth about ourselves.