A Tour of My Office, Part 2: Power Causes Brain Damage

hero image

There are a few framed items in my office that I glossed over in my last post. They are my certificates and diplomas from Yeshiva University, Penn, and others. I struggled mightily before hanging them on my wall, concerned about the barriers these diplomas may place between me and my employees and the grandiosity which they may convey. It just felt like showing off.

It seems I was right about hesitating. In an article titled, Power Causes Brain Damage, Jerry Useem summarizes recent research indicating that being in a position of leadership can over time cause leaders to become “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” In one study, brain-scans were taken of people in positions of authority over the course of a few years years and found that with time, the portion of the brain dedicated to empathy shrunk.

The irony, and what makes these studies so frightening is that these skills of self-control, self-awareness, and empathy are the skills that helped propel these leaders forward. However, after years of their employees agreeing to them (in public) and receiving so much honor and accolades, those characteristics start to wane, and in some, shrivel and die.

How do we as managers ensure that we retain the crucial skills of listening and understanding others? How do we ensure that we do not become the stereotypical out-of-touch boss bulldozing our employees to get the job done?

Immediately under the framed diplomas is a large picture of my wife, Julie. Julie is many things to me; she is a most loving mother to our children, an inspiration to all who know her, my rock and my best friend. In addition to the many hats she wears, she also has the incredible skill of tactfully letting me know when I’m wrong – with a smile. And being that I am often wrong or missing important perspectives, she has the distinction of letting me know how wrong I am quite often!

I often invite employees to give me honest feedback, but as a manager, I know I can never be sure that what I am hearing is the full picture. More, I try to surround myself with people who actively disagree with me, and am proud of the many friends and colleagues who relish the opportunities to put in me in my place! Having a colleague, friend, or spouse who can tell you things as they are is an essential ingredient in maintaining our self-awareness which is so critical to everything we do as a manager, and ensuring that we embrace our inner mentsch.

Rav Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, a leading 19th century Chassidic Rebbe, had two slips of paper on him at all times. In his right pocket, the paper read, “The entire universe was created for me” (Sanhedrin, 38a). In his left pocket, the paper read “I am dust and ashes” (Bereishis, 18:27). For me, my diplomas offset by the picture of my wife and what she represents gives me the balance I need. And besides, my wife told me keep them up!

How do you keep your equilibrium? How do you take yourself seriously, appreciating what you’ve accomplished and who you are, and at the same time, maintain humility, empathy, and a deep appreciation of the people we work with on a daily basis? I’d love to hear from you.