March 11–12, 2004
With leadership comes power—and with power, the potential for abuse. Consider the genocidal despotism of Hitler, the narcissistic and paranoid political maneuverings of Nixon, and the rampant corporate corruption of Enron. What important lessons can be learned from examining abuse of leadership such as these?
To explore this provocative topic in depth, scholars and practitioners gathered at Harvard on March 11–12, 2004 for Misuses of Power: Causes and Corrections, sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Throughout the two days of discussion, the conference heeded the wisdom of John F. Kennedy, who spoke the following words at Amherst College in 1963: “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness. But the men who question power make a contribution that is just as indispensable, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
The primary questions addressed at Leadership 2004: How is power misused? Why is power misused? How can we prevent the misuse of power? These were explored in lively interrelated panels on power in civil society, presidential power, and corporate power. In addition to these panels, conference attendees heard presentations on “Soft Power and Leadership,” by keynote speaker Joseph Nye, Dean of HKS; “Religious Perspectives on the Misuses of Power," by Peter J. Gomes, Pusey Minister, Memorial Church, Harvard University, and “Changing Minds for Good and Ill,” by Howard Gardner, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The conference left attendees with more questions than answers. Memorable conference moments included discussions on the following points:
How does misuse of power play out in the world?
Exploring leadership in civil society, Marshall Ganz, Lecturer in Public Policy, HKS, proposed that misuse of power can be defined as: “the emergence of leaders able to arrogate organizational power to themselves, using it in ways that distort the organization’s goals, undermine its capacity, or betray its constituency.” Ganz explicated such abuses: leaders attempting to keep their organizations small because they fear losing control; politically effective leaders in large organizations using their control over organizational resources (including their charisma) to turn the organization’s purposes to their own ends; leaders preventing competitive elections or membership accountability from being enacted; and staff members subverting or supplanting elected leaders as the real decision makers in the organization.
On the topic of presidential leadership, Barbara Kellerman, Research Director, CPL, and Lecturer in Public Policy, HKS, characterized Clinton’s presidency during the Rwandan genocide as “insular leadership,” in which leaders and followers “minimize or disregard altogether the health and welfare of others... outside the group for which they are directly responsible.” Elaine Kamarck, Lecturer in Public Policy, HKS, observed: “What is unique frankly, is how little presidential power is misused in this country.” Nixon remains a notable exception.
Examining corporate leadership, Michael Jensen, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School, observed: “Warren Buffet is the only person I’ve ever known to write in his letter, ‘Our stock is overvalued.’ The system rewards CEOs and boards for lying and punishes them for telling the truth.” Brian Hall, Professor, Harvard Business School, remarked: “If you have any concern whatsoever for structural misuses of power, it’s hard to understand why the leader of the very group that is supposed to keep you accountable, pay you, decide whether or not you’re fired, etc., would be the CEO.” Subtle abuses, such as Wal-Mart’s dominating size and ability to dictate the market, were dissected by Kathleen McGinn, Professor, Harvard Business School: “How do such abuses of economic power reduce social value? It reduces choice... and that has reverberations across the entire market.”
Why does misuse of power occur?
Warren Bennis, Professor, University of Southern California, addressed the issue of misuse of power by noting that “organizations have exquisite inventories of structural defenses against hearing the truth and against transparency.” He describes “petite Eichmanism,” whereby everyone blames someone else (e.g., “The board made me do it”; “The accountants signed off on this”; “The lawyers gave us their blessings”). Another defense cited by Bennis is bureaucratic silos, which fragment information and decisionmaking. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor, Harvard Business School, also offered a diagnosis for why misuses of power occur: “People misuse power because they can... The misuse of power results from the absence of systems, checks and balances.” Kanter emphasized looking at systematic causes for the roots of power’s misuse, rather than pointing at individuals.
How to prevent the misuse of power?
Howard Gardner suggested that institutions are essential to preventing abuses of power. “I think one of the problems in Germany in the Twenties was that Germany didn’t manage to develop those institutions with enough strength so that when Hitler came around there was any real resistance to it.” Reverend Gomes recommended “courageous modesty and modest courage.” He said, “We must always proceed with a degree of caution” —the modesty part of the equation. The second part is courageous responsibility to, in his words, “address the matters of the day that cry out for addressing... We have a responsibility to speak out in favor of what we believe to be true, the just, the good, and the beautiful, and against what we believe to be wickedness in high and low places.” Warren Bennis noted that ethical behavior starts at the top. It’s essential that leaders possess integrity and “are passionate about the idea of embodying—of incarnating—what ethics, integrity, is about.” Joseph Nye prescribed the use of soft power—the ability to constructively engage and shape the preferences of others—over hard power. “Simply put,” Nye proposed, “soft power is attractive power.” Other solutions proposed included stronger government regulation, economic incentives, and the creation of new professional norms.
All of the conference’s discussions revolved around a further, unspoken question: What are the consequences of power’s misuse for public sector leadership?
Roger Porter, Professor, HKS, expressed his concern about one possible consequence: “We are now living in an age in which... we are implicitly discouraging rather than encouraging some of the most talented young people in our society from pursuing careers in government because they worry they are going to be somehow tainted by entering into a profession that is less than honorable.” Analyzing the United States, Alex Keyssar, Professor, HKS, noted the irony that a country founded on a fear of power and the misuse of power has become “the most powerful nation in the world with the greatest potential for misuse of [that] power.” Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center and Professor, HKS, warned that the emergence of such a dominant power makes American allies nervous, even when the United States is attempting to utilize soft power: “Sharing a bathtub with an elephant is an uncomfortable experience even when the elephant is trying to be friendly.”