10 Ways to Avoid the Arrogance of Power

I just read a great piece on SmartBrief on Leadership by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. He wrote it for the Washingtonpost.com/On Leadership blog, and it’s called “The Arrogance of Power”.
In it, he says “Research in social psychology consistently reveals the corrupting effects of power: disinhibition and a diminished focus on those with less power. Influence distances those with it from those with less influence. At the same time, the ability to understand another’s point of view, and to put oneself in the other’s place, is one of the most critical factors that affects ability to obtain influence and is a critical skill for everyone, including organizational leaders.”
He goes on to say “There is also evidence, including some wonderful studies by business school professor Don Hambrick at Penn State, that shows the corroding effects of ego. Leaders filled with hubris are more likely to overpay for acquisitions and engage in other risky strategies. Leaders ought to cultivate humility. They certainly need to build cultures in which people can and will disagree with them over substantive decisions. They ought to get out and experience the world as others see it–maybe actually meet customers and shareholders, and they need to talk less and listen more.”
I can really relate to the phenomenon he’s described. Although I’ve never personally been in a “CEO like” position of power, I’ve been a manager for over 20 years, and if you’re not careful, anybody in a position of authority can lose their perspective. I’ve also seen it happen to newly promoted executives. They start off humble and with good intentions, but after a while, begin to get give in the drug of power, become isolated, lose touch, and start making bad decisions.
So how can a CEO, or anyone on a position of power and authority, avoid this trap? Here’s a starter list, and I’ll invite readers to add your own ideas.
10 Ways to Avoid the Arrogance of Power

1. I’m going to begin with a few of the ideas mentioned by Jeffrey Pfeffer, starting with encourage and reward dissent. I know this is easier said than done, it fact, it’s extremely difficult, and in reality, could be borderline anarchy. As an alternative to having dissent from everyone, a leader can cultivate a cadre of trusted advisors from all levels, inside and outside of the company. At a minimum, we can always rely on our closest loved one to keep us grounded!
2. Spend time with customers. I’m not talking about formal visits with your favorite customer’s top executives. Go out with your sales reps; sit in and listen to calls at your call center; take a tour of your customer’s business to see how they use your product; be a “mystery shopper” for your own product or service.
3. Read and answer your own email. Encourage employees at all levels to email you with questions, concerns, and suggestions. Let employees know that you may not be able to answer every one of them, but you will read them.
4. Be visible and accessible. Eat in the company cafeteria; attend company events; drop in on training programs. Don’t just sit with other executives – sit by yourself and ask employees to join you, or invite yourself to join other employees.
5. Have regular “fireside chats” with randomly selected, vertical slices of employees. Don’t do all of the talking; in fact, do as little talking as possible. I’ve seen executives show up at these things, talk about company strategy, entertain a few questions, and leave. While they may have left a positive impact, which is great, they learn absolutely nothing. Ask lot’s of questions and do a lot of listening.
6. Do regular “deep dives” with as many departments as possible. Spend a ½ – to a full day meeting with as many people as possible, touring the building, listening to presentations, asking questions, looking under the hood and kicking the tires.
7. Call the corporate travel agent and schedule a road trip. Take a few of your managers with you. Hit as many offices in a region, country, state, or some other geographic territory as possible. Schedule time with key customers, local management teams, high potentials, and other key local stakeholders. Do all employee meetings, formal tours, and when you can, lose your handlers and just wander around and ask questions.
8. Conduct regular employee and customer surveys. Don’t just read the executive summary – study the data, read the raw comments, and ask questions.
9. Work with an executive coach who’s willing to get in your face and tell it like it is.
10. Leverage technology and social networking. Start your own blog; provide your customers and employees a confidential forum to post comments.
What’s worked for you? How do you stay grounded, humble, and in touch with reality? What have you seen CEOs and other leaders do to avoid the arrogance of power?
Special bulletin:

The 2/4/09 Carnival of HR is being hosting by Wally Bock, one of my all time favorite leadership development bloggers, over at his Three Star Leadership Blog. Take a look, I promise it will be well worth your time. There’s 21 recent articles from the greatest HR bloggers on earth!