Are Power Seekers Good or Evil?
Every successful executive and business leader can look back and point to pivotal moments in his or her career--those times when everything seemed to change, as if all at once.
You can learn a lot by understanding what really occurs during those inflection points. It can teach you a great deal about what motivates overachievers and what makes them successful. It taught me about the true nature of power and those who seek it.
About two years into my career as an engineer, my bosses at Texas Instruments made me a manager and started dumping all sorts of projects on me. Of course, I was ecstatic. But after a while, I became concerned that I was enjoying it too much.
One day I walked into my manager's office and, after the usual project chitchat, eventually got around to what was really on my mind:
"Wil, I really appreciate the faith you have in me and all this responsibility. Actually, I'm having a great time and, you know, that's what's got me worried. Am I power hungry?"
The big Texan chewed on that for a few seconds, smiled, and said, "No, Steve, I don't think you're power hungry. I just think you're accomplishment oriented."
Needless to say, I was relieved. So relieved that I've never forgotten that conversation. Thirty years later, I can tell you that Wil was right. He hit the nail right on the head. Accomplishing things is what defines and inspires me. And I'm certainly not the only one.
The difference between lasting success and untimely failure is often a function of what motivates us to behave a certain way. I've learned that seeking to accomplish is a good thing, while seeking to control or have power over others is, more or less, the dark side.
Here are some observations on what motivates successful people and the true nature of power and those who seek it.
Most successful executives and business leaders don't seek power.
Most of the successful folks I've known were driven to achieve, like me. They liked to fix things, solve problems, make products, and ultimately beat the competition. Why? Because that's how they knew they had accomplished something. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the hurdles, the bigger the competitors, the bigger the sense of accomplishment.
Money and wealth, like market share and profits, are essentially metrics to measure our accomplishments. Why are we like that? I'm no shrink, but I suspect there are lots of different reasons. Some of us have something to prove, although to whom, we're not always sure. Maybe it just makes us feel good. It makes us happy.
Once people are successful and "powerful," some change; others don't.
Those who are relatively grounded, are reasonably self-aware, and don't take themselves too seriously, don't change, at least not in a bad way. Those are the ones with the best chance of replicating success.
Others let it go to their head. They lose their sense of perspective and objectivity. Those are the ones who tend to flame out. Those are the ones who become their own worst enemy. Unfortunately, they often take others, even entire companies, down with them.
Who are the power seekers?
Oftentimes they're people who, for whatever reason, feel powerless, weak, or scared inside. They seek control or power over others because it makes them feel safe or less fearful. Sometimes their fear is based in reality, because they're poor or physically weak, for example. Other times it's just their perception, perhaps a legacy of childhood.
One thing's for sure: It's a mistake to think that's just the other guy. We all have some of those tendencies in us, albeit to widely varying degrees, and we exhibit that sort of behavior under very different conditions.
For some, seeking power and authority is a cultural thing, a matter of where and how they were brought up. That said, not everyone who grew up with money or privilege ends up seeking power and authority. It's very much a function of upbringing and, of course, individual personality.
Not all politicians are power seekers, either. I used to know the late, great Jack Kemp. He sat on the board of a public high-tech company where I ran marketing back in the '90s. Jack was a genuine, fun-loving guy. He was a powerful advocate for small-business America and fiscal responsibility in government. Jack was not a power seeker.
It's not always obvious who the power seekers are. The appearance of benevolence or selflessness is often a disguise to get attention, lure others, and accumulate power for selfish and controlling purposes. Some are aware of their behavior, while others live in a state of denial. It's insidious and oftentimes tragic.
If you're at all concerned about what motivates you, there's a simple test.
Give it up for 30 days. If you can do that, you're probably fine. It's the same with power. If you can give it up with relative ease, then you're probably not a power seeker.
Ten years ago, I gave up a successful career as a senior executive. I had other reasons for doing it, but it's a pretty good experiment, nevertheless. Do I miss the power and authority? No, not really. That's how I know Wil was right about me.