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

September 8, 2012

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.

Future Leaders

March 16, 2010

Textbooks tell us a lot about the nature of leaders from past history. Some of them give example of present-day leaders. But what might we expect of leaders in the future?

Analysis by Tudor Rickards and Kamel Mnisri

The question was put by a participant on a leadership workshop in Dubai recently. What indeed might we expect from future leaders? Harvard Business Review sometimes permits speculation on the subject to find its way into its august pages. Such articles show a rather worrying absence of any radical shift in beliefs across the period including the global economic crisis which manifested itself in 2008. That is to say, articles about the future of leadership need to be studied as imaginative essays which require constructive testing.

For example, the dominant views of leadership in the most widely-read articles and books on the subject build on work from American leaders. These ideas drew on and fed back into theories of leadership which became increasingly influenced by the American experience, mediated by American cultural norms of individualism and self-actualization. That is not to say that the ideas were sealed off from older influences, particularly from Europe. The economic principles of the free market were retained and developed from the insights of the moral philosophers such as Adam Smith, and through French and German intellectual figures, whose ideas were reinforced in the Unites States by the waves of immigrants making a new life in the emergent super-state.

The re-exporting of these ideas around the world was reinforced by the powerful influence of Harvard Business School which has been attributed as having invented the discipline (and some would say the rhetoric) of organisation studies. By the 1930s, its consulting handmaiden McKinsey was emerging was becoming equally dominant globally through Harvard trained consultants and faculty.

By the turn of the 20th century, the vigorous marketing of the American idea of leadership was firmly entrenched through the most-highly regards journals, textbooks, and more popular best-sellers promising organisational and personal redemption.

A tipping point for leadership theories

Then something spectacular occurred, impacting on leaders and leadership theories around the world. It took the shape of a radical disruption of normality for economic systems. As banks failed, their leaders were accused of corruption, incompetence or both. Even the so-called new leadership model of the 1980s looked rather inadequate. Where were the transformational leaders, believed to be transforming followers into less-selfish actions for the good of the wider social system? Where were the ethical leaders supporting greater awareness of environmental dangers and seeking to achieve greater corporate responsibility?

Opinion pieces on leadership offered a few possibilities. The harshness of dominant leaders had led to proposals that animal instincts were too close to the surface [Mandrill management]. A more person-centred style was advocated with attention to ‘softer’ skills. The new leader was expected to show emotional intelligence.

Blowing in the wind. Superleadership?

A question for students of leadership: What answers are there blowing in these winds of change? One idea is that of distributed or collective leadership. Manz and Sims offer the concept of a version of distributed leadership which collectively makes up a superleader. Will this help introduce a more evenly shared distribution of power and influence in organizations? Will China’s million graduates produced annually be enthused by the prospect of such leadership?

What’s the difference between Jeremy Paxman and Jeremy Clarkson?

February 13, 2009
Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Simon Mayo had mistakenly introduced his BBC radio guest as Jeremy Clarkson. To me, Jeremy Paxman sounded remarkably like Jeremy Clarkson. Which suggests that the two celebrities may have something more in common than a name …

Driving home this afternoon [Feb 12th 2009], I heard the familiar urbane tones of Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5 live. He was introducing his guest, Jeremy someone. He then apologised for confusing Jeremy Clarkson and Jeremy Paxman. The guest accepted Mayo’s apology not totally happy with the start to the interview. It amused me to suspect that one of England’s celebrity broadcasters had been peeved at being introduced as the other, even through a slip of the tongue. A bit thin-skinned, which ever one of them was there.

Then something curious happened. I listened more carefully to find out which Jeremy was in the studio. My point of reference was an interview on the same show, also conducted by Simon Mayo a few months ago, with Jeremy Clarkson the self-confessed petrol head. I could not decide whether this was another Clarkson interview, or one with the Paxman the political journalist.

It was curious, because I (like many others living here in England) have to exercise the off-switch to avoid hearing one or other Jeremy on a near daily basis. But I had never remarked on any similarity in their speech patterns before. Now for quite a few minutes, as far as I could detect, the voice might have been that Petrol Head or Political Journalist. What’s going on? Did they really have such similar delivery styles? If so, why had I never noticed it before? And why should anyone care anyway?

Why might it matter at all?

It might matter if you are a friend of both Jeremy C and of Jeremy P and you get a phone call from someone announcing “Jeremy here, I want you to appear on my programme next week”. It would make a difference if you then agreed and found yourself on the wrong sort of programme.

For those us not in that hypothetical position, why might it matter at all?
Probably not a lot, but the unexpectedness of that interview today set me thinking about sense-making, and role-playing. I’m intrigued enough to invite subscribers to share their views.

Mandrill management

I have an interest in evolutionary models of human behaviour, as they throw light on leadership patterns. In this respect, Jeremy P has long struck me as a fine example of what I have called Mandrill management. The metaphor implies a highly developed power drive which ultimately takes its toll on the alpha male and those further down the order in the social group. If I had thought about it, I would have noted Jeremy C as having similar characteristics. Clarkson’s recent public outburst against Prime Minister Gordon Brown (“that one-eye Scottish idiot”) seems illustrative of the almost uncontrollable and habitual actions of the Mandrill manager in action. These are gifted but rather fearsome creatures who may be conditioned to act out their need to be alpha males in their public interactions. Under stress, the Mandrill comes to the party.

It turned out that it was Jeremy Paxman being interviewed. The following interpretation of the interview is even more speculative than my usual efforts. But [At first Mr Paxman] seemed to have a restricted range of delivery, but even a more exaggerated way of emphasis (compensation?). Later in the interview, the familiar wide range of tones re-emerged. The staginess at the start reminded be of an actor with a rather over-ripe style which was then replaced by the staginess of a consummate professional interrogator and public speaker.

Clarkson’s normal delivery is closer to someone acting out the on-stage heavy from a crime drama. Paxman’s voice at the start of the interview was closer to Clarkson’s explosive attacks on the English language. Perhaps the ‘threat’ of not being properly recognised triggers a surge of adrenaline in a Mandrill manager’s blood.

Maybe there are a few ideas about leadership behaviour to be gained from an episode in which one gifted radio performer made a little gaff, and another reacted in a surprising fashion.

Are leaders and followers driven by biologically-ancient structures?

December 17, 2008

Humans still reveal their animal heritage

Humans still reveal their animal heritage

A recent article takes an evolutionary psychology approach to explaining leadership. The authors propose that modern human behaviors are fundamentally influenced by ancient evolutionary principles. The claims have considerable appeal in light of everyday experiences, but do they stand up to more careful scrutiny?

The article, in American Psychologist, has captured the attention of organisational theorists such as Bob Sutton.

The study, Leadership, Followship and Evolution: Some Lessons from the past suggests that theories of leadership have paid insufficient attention to followers.

A wide-range theory requires wide-range questions

The authors draw on evidence going back millions of years, while raising important questions for contemporary times:

Why are there followers as well as leaders? How might modern organizational structures contribute to poor perceived quality of working life for many people? How might ‘selfless’ social behaviors be explained? And as well as these contemporary issues, they throw in an evolutionary question: How did leadership promote survival among our ancestors?

Hint to students of leadership

Any student of leadership would be advised to pause here and decide what sense you make of these questions. There are no straightforward answers. Conventional wisdom has struggled with an answer to the question on followership. We no longer accept that you either have ‘the right stuff’ or you don’t, to be a leader . The evidence (cited in this paper) is that leaders can not be identified solely on genetic attributes. Followers may be ‘leaders in waiting’ some of whom will seize opportunities as circumstances change.

The evolutionary case

What is the evolutionary case for explaining leadership? Van Vugt and colleagues assemble an eclectic range of materials from biological and sociological studies. Some of it is now familiar through the popularizing of pioneering work (Richard Dawkins, for example, was a research student of the much revered Niko Tinbergen). The authors assemble a natural history of leadership with four stages.

All ‘Pre-human’ leadership (ca 2.5 million years and beyond) is classed in stage one involving ‘situational or dominance’ hierarchies.

Stage two sees the arrival of humanoid species 2.5 million years, ago, and persisting until relatively recently (around 13,000 years ago). This is the so-called era of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA) in which hunter-gather cultures developed, with the ‘Big Man’ or head man who led by consensus and trust.

‘Dominance hierarchies are the norm in [earlier primate groups]; for early humans collaboration among subordinates reversed this dominance hierarchy and resulted in a dominant democratic style that may have existed for nearly 2.5 million years’ [p188].

The greater proportion of the time span of Homo Sapiens is located in stage 2.

Stage 3 is where the so-called agricultural revolution occurred, since the last ice age . The analysis is rather critical of the course of evolution in stage three, suggesting that leaders gain more power over followers:

‘The payoff for leadership increased substantially .. attracting shrewd resourceful individuals to those positions for selfish reasons.. a substantial proportion of modern humanity .. still live under these oppressive conditions [p189]’.

Finally (for the moment, anyway), there is Stage 4, seen as emerging at the time of the industrial revolution, around two and a half centuries ago.

The authors consider that Stage 4 has brought enormous individual and social gains, while having some less pleasant side-effects.

‘..[E]mployees are relatively free from the predations of their leaders ..[But] in the early stages ..workers were almost slaves. Class warfare [still occurs but is moderated compared to regions still dominated by warlords]’

Evolutionary psychology is a positive science

This article presents a coherent view of human development. It takes the positive view of the ascent of man in the spirit of the enlightenment. Evolutionary development has resulted in advancement of groups with more complex social structures in line with (partly humanly initiated) new and more complex environmental structures such as organizations, cities, states, etc).

Cultural theorists as well as many lay people will take issue in the classification of contemporary cultures, with its assertion that much of the world is still ‘on the way towards’ the superior conditions of the fully-actualized stage 4.

The Mismatch phenomenon

The analysis is not one which ignores the weaknesses of many contemporary business and political leaders. It acknowledges misgivings on the nature and quality of modern working life.

Our evolutionary legacy results in behaviors which reveal our ancestral links. We are still capable as leaders and followers of reacting as Stage one creatures according to nature, nurture, and specific circumstances.

Our biological legacy influences our modern behaviors, This produces a mismatch between the demands of modern societies, and more primitive impulses. The concept offers an explanation of dysfunctional leadership in our times, suggesting such leaders cope in the short-term, with the expectation of replacement through survival of the fittest (genes?) in the longer term.

Leaders we deserve [Oct 2007] took an evolutionary perspective in examining leadership behaviors, arriving at a more cautious conclusion that an evolutionary perspective helps explore the meanings we bring to leadership across the animal world, rather than provide a unifying framework.

Footnote illustrating the mismatch concept

Arecent biopic of Lehman’s leadership put it this way

To say he was surrounded with a cult of personality would be an understatement. He was the textbook example of the “command-and-control CEO”. More than that, to many employees and to the outside world, he was Lehman Brothers – his character inextricably intertwined with the firm’s. Fuld inspired great loyalty and, on occasion, great fear. Those closest to him slaved like courtiers to a medieval monarch, second-guessing his moods and predilections, fretting over minute details of his schedule down to the flower arrangements and insulating him from trouble – from almost anything he might not want to hear.
Fuld had become insulated from the day-to-day realities of the firm and had increasingly delegated operational authority to his number two, a long-standing associate named Joe Gregory.

If Dick was the king, Joe was Cardinal Richelieu. If something went wrong, you could be sure that Gregory would be on the telephone in a towering rage. Problematically, Joe Gregory was not a detail man or a risk manager. On the contrary, as Fuld was musing to outsiders about his worries concerning risk, Gregory was doing the precise opposite: actively urging divisional managers to place even more aggressive bets in surging asset markets such as the mortgage business and commercial real estate


A paper adding a relatively ignored perspective to studies of leadership and followership

Tai Chi, Team Leadership and Contented Cows

April 15, 2008

A Metro News article tells of a new angle on motivational methods.

Rob Taverner performs the ancient martial art in front of his 100 cows every morning to get them in the right moo-d to produce lots of milk.

The 44-year-old organic farmer visits the animals at 9am each day to run through his ten-minute routine of slow movements and breathing techniques – dressed in his distinctive overalls and wellies. He said: ‘Tai chi is all about leaving your problems behind and getting into a better zone and my mood definitely transfers to the cows’.

Crazy or What?

This blog has not been afraid to espouse the unusual. In the past we have looked at Horse Whispering, Mandrill management …

But Tai Chi for improved productivity of a herd of cows? What possible justification can there be for taking this starting point for insights into leadership?

Pause a moment

Many ideas start out as being mocked, and then dismissed as obvious. I assume this is item is likely to fall more in the former than the latter category.

Mr Taverner attracted quite a lot of publicity nationally for his tale of Tai Chi. It had the sort of quirkiness that appeals to Brits. The organic farmer also handled the media rather well. In a radio interview he added a further twist to the tale.

The cows were not just happy but their contentment had been accompanied by a measurable increase in milk production. Did all this leave himself open to ridicule? Well yes, a bit, but not enough to bother a diligent student of Tai Chi. And he had an added twist to the story.

Tai Chi and Team Leadership

He had gone down to his local rugby club over the weekend [April 12-13, 2008]. Seems the under-fourteen squad greeted him with their own humorous (as in Rugby club humourous) version of a Tai Chi warm up.

See? I said there was a connection with team leadership. According to the farmer the team went on to win its competition.

Make your own mind up

A momentary bit of eye candy? Or should we be looking more closely at the rationale for applying Tai Chi as part of a sporting leader’s armoury of techniques which help team members generate fierce resolve?


To Jonathan Guiliano for introducing me to Bob Sutton’s entertaining and well-informed blog