Proximity to Power Corrupts the Mind

Early in my HR career, I was assigned to work with a C-Suite executive who was seriously challenged in filling a key position on his staff. Twelve people flew through that revolving door in less than three years … quite the turnover rate!

Several members of the HR team had been assigned to support this recruit over that period. They were all exceptional recruiters and HR practitioners, yet none had been able to find the right person who would stick. That’s because it wasn’t about the recruiter or the candidates – they weren’t the common denominator.

The problem began with a member of the executive’s broader team, Sue, who had been allowed to run roughshod over the new hires – intimidating and bullying them.

And, of course, it was the executive himself.

He wasn’t incompetent, nor was he a bully himself by any means, so no one could figure out why he was allowing it to happen. Yet because of his level within the company and the assumption that he was the successor to the CEO, few people felt comfortable suggesting that he was part of the problem.

As I was brought up to speed on this history and began preparing myself for my first meeting with this leader, one of our HR managers, Will, reached out to me with some advice:

Proximity to power corrupts the mind. Don’t let this happen to you.

This advice was due, in part, because it was evident that Sue had interpreted her close working relationship with the executive to have conferred a similar authority on her. Afraid to lose it or share it with anyone else, she was actively undermining the new hires to prevent them from getting close to the executive.

Moreover, Will knew how easy it is for anyone (let alone a young professional like I was at the time) to get an inflated ego because they’re the point person on LION 1 - Free Imagesa key initiative for a high level leader. He knew that being tapped to work with someone in power can fog an otherwise objective, clear mind.  Running in the same circle (or along the perimeter) as those at the helm can create an illusion of one’s own power or self-importance.

And of course, Will knew that if any of that happened, I couldn’t do my job effectively. The cycle and cost of constant turnover would continue. The bad behavior would live on. Nothing good can come from a power corrupted mind.

Will’s wisdom served me well in that assignment, particularly as I prepared for a very honest 1:1 with the executive.

I’ll never forget the exec’s reaction when he realized I was holding him accountable and inviting him to own and address the situation.  A look of surprise crossed his face before he sat back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his head and listened.  There was no doubt about it … he was assessing me and determining if he was going to give this 20-something any credibility.

He sat silently for a stretch after I reviewed my key points.  I waited.

It seemed like the proverbial eternity before he smiled – a mix of curiosity and respect.  He acknowledged his role in the issue and committed we would get to the action plan before the end of our meeting, but his first order of business had nothing to do with him or his team.

He recognized me for having the courage to broach this directly and he wanted to know who the heck I was … and how he could further leverage me to support his own performance and his team.  Wow!  I had been prepared for a lot of responses, but that definitely wasn’t one of them!

That moment was an inflection point in my life.  From that day forward, the executive turned to me for counsel and perspective again and again.  My career trajectory took on new directions that never would have been available had I fallen victim to the proximity of power.

Roles, experiences, connections, knowledge – so many opportunities became available to me … all because of a single piece of sage advice to manage my perceptions and my relationship to perceived power.

In the almost 20 years since that experience, I frequently return to Will’s quote both as counsel for others and as a compass for my own thinking, speaking and actions.  It was a gift of wisdom for which I’ll forever be grateful.


An Invitation to Reflect …  

  • Inflection Points – Take a few minutes to identify the inflection points in your own life and career – those that shaped your worldview, leadership or trajectory. When did they happen? What did you learn? Who do you need to thank for them? Who can benefit if you share these?


  • Proximity to Power – How do you interact with and react to those in power? Notice your default reactions and how they guide your thinking, speaking and acting. How can you vigilantly guard against the corrupt mind when you are frequently engaged with those in power positions? Alternately, when you are the person in power, how do you invite dissent and candor? How do you accept feedback? Do you respect others when they step up and challenge you?


  • Know Your Purpose – The continuum can range from your purpose in a single interaction or meeting, to the purpose of your role, to your place in this world. You choose. Just stop occasionally to ask yourself the question, “What am I here to do? Who am I intended to be?” If you’re marrying your heart, head and values, the answers will become clear.


  • Establish your Leadership Vision – What kind of leader do you aspire to be? That vision serves as your compass and all of us need to be reminded of our direction from time to time. A clear vision for who you intend to be as a leader makes it easier to find your rudder when you most need it.


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