By Nicholas Varchaver
June 25, 2017

Good Morning.

My vote for best opening lines in an article this week goes to the Atlantic: “If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?” What can I say? The writer had me at Kissinger.

The second paragraph is pretty great, too. It muses on the public obtuseness of former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf (whose last name, through the backward lens of history, has come to have an onomatopeic perfection). Come to think of it, the third paragraph is pretty amusing. Let’s be clear, though: “Power Causes Brain Damage” isn’t merely clever. It’s got a deadly serious point:

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, 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.

The article goes on to argue that powerful people can lose the ability to see themselves as others do, among other negative effects. On the plus side, the syndrome does allow, say, a CEO to devote more mental resources to decision-making—rather than pleasing the boss. The article offers a few techniques for managing hubris (if such a trait can be said to be “managed”) as well as management lessons ranging from the aforementioned Stumpf and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Power is frequently written about in black and white terms—often hinging on whether the writer agrees with the goals or effects of the powerful person—and it’s a pleasure to read a well-considered, nuanced assessment of the quality with a fresh perspective.


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