As headlines over the last several months have reminded us, there seems to be something about power that correlates with unwonted sexual advances and expectations.
Why is that?
One corrupting power of power is the creation of a sense of entitlement. What “ordinary” people would never assume they could get away with, “powerful” people may perceive as their due.
The “power” in question can be general or situational. Celebrities and prominent public figures exude a certain general power born of their public image. Situational power is wielded by bosses over employees, professors over students, producers over starlets, editors over reporters, legislators over staffers and petitioners.
No matter how much one seeks to minimize the power one holds in such settings, the power remains. And with the power disparity, the less powerful person is also less free, even if he/she never feels trapped or coerced.
Powerful people may be oblivious to this implicit power dynamic. Seeking to keep the powerful person satisfied (whether to curry favor or to avoid criticism), those who are less powerful give extraordinary service, responding to each new expectation by meeting it, to each request by granting it.
This can lead powerful people to expect special treatment. The extraordinary becomes ordinary, routine, the baseline for their interactions with others.
Which, in turn, reinforces the powerful person’s sense that they are entitled to more than usual courtesy. And it reinforces the sense that, because such courtesy is “freely” given, other people clearly want to give them . . . more.
One result of which can be demands for greater intimacy than others may want.
If this is going on, why do we go years without hearing about it, then suddenly we are awash in allegations?
This comes back to the sense of the power that a victim feels the powerful person has over them. Victims are uncertain about how a powerful person who assaulted them might use their power if challenged. And often, they are at least a little puzzled that a powerful person (who must be a good person, right?) would have sought such an advantage over them. Was it their own fault? Had they sent mixed signals, invited the “familiarity” that now disturbs them?
But once one allegation is made public, other victims’ freedom seems greater, their risk less. And there is much to be said for the liberating power of confession . . . even when what one must confess are not one’s own transgressions.
Which doesn’t mean that every allegation is true, that every powerful person accused of sexual misconduct is a monster in a business suit. But the overwhelming evidence is that most such allegations, when leveled by those who claim to be victims, are grounded in truth.
Power is a reality. Relationships include power dynamics, and some relationships are going to exhibit considerable disparities of power. Such disparities may be reduced by conscious effort in some circumstances, but the disparity persists. Employers, supervisors, professors, producers and elected leaders all have real power over certain others.
The challenge for powerful people who would be good leaders is not to disavow power. It is to disavow, by persistent self-examination and disciplined behavior, any entitlement to anything not actually our due.
Whether it’s from discerning this implicit power dynamic or a council meeting with your peers, there are leadership lessons to be learned wherever we look. Join Holly McPhail and me on November 9th at 2 p.m. for our webinar, Discovering Leadership, as we explore some of the inspirations behind the leadership lessons captured in my new book, More than Self. Click here to register.
And for a thoughtful exploration of public ethics beyond legal compliance, join me for The Ethical Leader: Rules and Tools at the National League of Cities City Summit in Charlotte, N.C. on Wednesday, November 15th. Click here for more information and to register.