National Portrait Gallery, London
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama told the crowd, “Being president doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.”
Growing up, Michelle said, she and Barack learned important lessons from their families about “dignity and decency” and “gratitude and humility.” “At the end of the day,” she said, “when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.”
Research in cognitive science reveals the former First Lady is right: Power exposes your true character. It releases inhibitions and sets your inner self free. If you’re a jerk when you gain power, you’ll become more of one. If you’re a mensch, you’ll get nicer. So if you happen to all of a sudden become president, or at least president of your lab or book club, what inner self will come out?
Psychologists generally define power as control over others, by providing or withholding resources, without social interference. Tapping your true nature, though, begins with feeling powerful. Getting the corner office boosts creativity and reduces conformity.
In a 2008 experiment, undergraduates were asked either to recall a time they had power over someone or to recall a time someone had power over them.1 Then they were asked to draw an alien creature. Some were shown an example creature that had wings. When feeling powerless, seeing a creature with wings increased the chance a student would add wings to his own creature, a demonstration of conformity. Those made to feel powerful, however, remained unaffected by the example, following their own creative urges.
Power also makes people more likely to act on their desires. In one experiment, those made to feel powerful were more likely to move or unplug an annoying fan blowing on them.2 When working with others, the powerful are also more likely to voice their opinions. In another experiment, students were paired for a joint task.3 The one assigned to be the leader of the pair typically expressed her true feelings and attitudes more than her subordinate did.
When people obtain power, don’t expect them to behave dramatically differently from how they did before.
We are less deliberative and more persistent in pursuing our goals when we gain power. In one of a series of experiments, researchers asked students to recall having or lacking power, then asked how much time and information they would need to make various decisions, including which roommate to live with or which car to buy.4 Those who felt powerful said they’d need less time and information. In a second experiment, participants made to feel powerful spent more time trying to solve an impossible geometric puzzle. In a third, they were quicker to interrupt someone who disagreed with them.
Overall, power makes us feel authentic. In one study, participants recalled a time they had power or a time they lacked it.5 Then they rated their personality traits in three contexts: with their parents, at work, and in a social gathering. They also rated their feelings of authenticity in the moment, with items such as “I feel like I can be myself with others.” Feeling powerful increased the consistency of people’s personality ratings, which in turn increased their feelings of authenticity.
Power’s effects on expression result largely from the fact that it frees us from dependence on others, allowing us to ignore their concerns and pursue our own objectives. Intoxication from power leads us to focus more clearly on whatever goal we have in mind. With clear focus on a goal, we then pursue it.
Those goals are often selfish, which would seem to support the historian Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But it’s not that simple. “The model is more complex than that,” says Melissa Williams, a psychologist at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, who has written about what leads power to corrupt or ennoble. In a review article in the Journal of Management, Williams summarized research that outlines four main categories of traits—personality, individualism, values, and desire for power—that can guide unethical or ethical leadership.6
It’s no surprise the traits of narcissism and Machiavellianism are stoked by power. A German study comparing 76 inmates convicted of high-level white-collar crimes with 150 managers on the outside found that the criminals were more narcissistic.7 A Dutch study published last year found that among 225 managers, those scoring higher on Machiavellianism were rated by their subordinates as abusive (“Our supervisor ridicules us”).8
Ethical leadership, on the other hand, arises out of several positive personality traits. In one study, 81 leaders in Dutch organizations were evaluated by their subordinates.9 People rated their bosses on traits such as agreeableness and honesty-humility. They also rated their bosses on aspects of leadership style, such as ethics and supportiveness. Honest, humble leaders were more ethical than others, while agreeable leaders were more supportive. They served their followers rather than demanding to be served.
Another influential personality trait is one’s propensity to feel guilt. Business managers who said they’d feel strong guilt after, say, running over a small animal were also more likely to report feeling responsible for others, and in turn they were rated as more effective leaders by their peers, superiors, and subordinates.10
One study looked at the role of social responsibility among CEOs.11 The more the chief executives expressed internal moral obligation—feeling the need to be responsible and do the right thing—the more they were seen to be moral and fair, and the less they were seen to act “like a tyrant or despot.”…