The secret of power: Not ruthlessness, but empathy

American psychologist Dacher Keltner says, those who gain power are the ones who work for the good of others. But paradoxically, power can lead to selfishness—and loss of power

D Shivakumar

The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence

By Dacher Keltner

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Srini Bala on Feb 10, 2017 11:12 a.m. said

This is mushy twaddle. Basically, I find this an honorable addition to that shelf in your library that contains self-improvement books which you are almost embarrassed to admit you read and admired once.
First of all, the psychologist's assumption that power has always equalled muscle, cash and force in history is simply wrong. Throughout history, leaders have known the value of soft power, collaboration and empathy. But at the same time, they also knew that in certain contexts, it was force and even violence that brings power. True leadership lies not in being empathetic all the time, but in knowing when to use it and when not to.
In the 10th and 11th century, King Rajaraja Chola exemplified this twin-track strategy the best. He forgave the assassins of his brother, an act that gained him the admiration of the neighboring Pandiya people who accepted his overlordship and rejected all attempts at revolution. At the same time, he didn't employ empathy when he invaded Sri Lanka. There he burnt down the entire city of Anuradhapura, an act of extreme violence that had the same effect - The Sri Lankans accepted his overlordship because of his superior muscle power. Rajaraja knew which one would work when.
Closer to our time, Napoleon used the same tactic: he was both forceful and empathetic at the same time. The British gained power in India by the same mix.
So the entire theory is based on a wrong assumption about 5000 years of thought on power. To that we need to shift from the Force Paradigm to Empathy Paradigm in our discourse on leadership is wrong. Both work. The context is important.
The other problem with this idea is how it peddles a half truth. Half truths are dangerous because they don't reflect the truth, but are difficult to dispute.
Take the statements here such as groups bestow power on people who are kind, generous etc. Groups bestow power on people THEY PERCEIVE to be kind, generous etc. That is a very different phenomenon. Here the perception is what matters, not the reality. So it is entirely possible to get power by telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Throughout history, and in modern times, demagogues have held true and lasting power emanating a perception of empathy without really possessing it. They have been feted during their lives and deified after their deaths.
That brings us to the other point. This psychologist seems to portray leaders as always good people: kind and generous and open etc. Throughout history there have been great leaders who were bastards. They killed, maimed and destroyed generations, but when it came to leadership qualities, they could inspire and energize. That means this new "Empathy Paradigm" is at best a rehash of a semi-thought we have always known, but one that's presented as an absolutist ideology. Corporate executives, 99% of whom can hardly be called leaders but imagine themselves to be, would love such a pitch.