How power corrupts the brain and kills empathy

Have you ever seen someone step into a position of power and then completely change how they interact with others? For example, a team member is promoted to be the leader of the team and soon becomes harsh and critical of his previous teammates. The team no longer recognise this person – “he used to be such a great team player, now he’s only interested in himself and his own optics!”

The problem is that the feeling of power turns off mirror neurons and the person’s access to empathy. We can literally lose our empathy and can no longer step into the shoes of other people – the people we lead – and read their emotions or understand their needs. The problem will get more extreme with time, especially if a leader’s behaviour is left unchecked.

This is a real phenomenon with its own medical term: hubris syndrome, coined by Lord David Owen and Jonathan Davidson in 2009. Some of its clinical features include manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence (cited from the Atlantic).

What can we do about this? 

Hubris syndrome is completely preventable if the person in a position of power learns about this before they get seduced by those feelings of power. Essentially, they need to exercise their mirror neurons: stay in touch with people and keep putting themselves in others’ shoes.

A 2015 HBR article has a list of recommendations which includes having a coach, a strong social network and staying self-aware and connected with others – don’t become disconnected and make decisions in isolation.

Leaders, please stay aware and awake, even as you relish your new position and delight in your abilities, please stay connected to the people you serve and lead. Learn about them, understand them, ask what they need. Find the humility to be curious.

Coaches and trainers who work with leaders, we also have a role to play: we can help people in powerful positions to fully use their intelligence, competence, visionary thinking and take-charge abilities and, in addition, help them stay self-aware and grounded in reality.

This combination of power AND empathy creates truly great leaders.