The Winner Effect: Power may corrupt and it also seems to wither conscience

The Winner Effect is a book which claims neurological evidence that power corrupts. It offers an explanation for the often discussed dark side of leadership and even of alpha-male behaviours

In a presentation recorded by the BBC and which may still be available to UK subscribers, the Scottish psychologist Ian H Robertson [29th August 2012] talks about his theory proposed in the book The Winner Effect.

The consequences of acquiring power

Professor Robertson suggests that one of the consequences of acquiring power is a coarsening of sensitivity [my interpretation: Ed]. He illustrates with the anecdote of President Obama, who regularly decides from a supplied list who is on a hit list from predator drones. This is power over life and death which has to be dealt with regularly by the most powerful man on the planet.

A tasteless joke

Professor Robinson goes on to reprise a tasteless joke about predator drones, made by Barack Obama recently. The anecdote on U-tube reminded me of the roars of approval when Kenny Everett, an English comedian some years ago, ‘jokingly’ invited a Conservative conference to “nuke Russia”.

In the interests of political power balance, I should mention some remarks offered humorously by President Obama’s Presidential opponent Mitt Romney about his skills at firing people which he had displayed during his days as a management consultant.

Power defined

The Winner Effect defines power as having control over things that people need or fear. Its argument develops as follows: Power helps you think in abstract terms. Research evidence suggests that power increases testosterone and dopamine, and indirectly through bio-feedback systems reduces stress and enhances a positive outlook [efficacy?: Ed]. Leadership needs such positivity as a social survival factor.

Power both improves performance and corrupts morals

It is suggested that power both improves and corrupts. There is an optimal level of power. So that “the notion of a benevolent dictator is an oxymoron… the power drug is as addictive as and in the same order as Cocaine”.

Almost part of the make-up of a leader is a diminishing of empathy in order to “see the big picture” without being weakened by the effects of concern for human consequences.

The overall perspective

The Winner Effect offers a map explaining what is sometimes referred to as the dark side of leadership. I am also reminded of some work I carried out on Mandrill Management, and the physical signs of power – and its decline – in alpha-male Mandrills.

The implications

The implications are profound and extend far further than academic research into leadership. Discussions are already arising over the possibilities of not just understanding, but managing the adrenaline rush in humans not just in the board room but in combat, human relationship, sport and so on. Possible benefits will become weighed against dystopic implications of manipulating the Winner Effect involving genetic modifications to animals and new kinds of drug abuse in humans.

Creative leaps

Careful analysis is needed before we can move safely from these initial physiological findings to a mapping of effective and ineffective leadership behaviours. However, I am attracted to the broad idea in the Winner Effect as one which invites further research. Perhaps with Mandrills, as well as with managers.


To LWD subscriber Dr David Allen for sending in the BBC broadcast of Professor Ian Robertson’s talk on The Winner Effect.

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