Gaining and using power is an old subject–and at the core of politics diplomacy, and leadership. So this new book by Dacher Keltner upends the traditional Machiavellian interpretation by arguing that you become more powerful through “empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity.” That’s the good news.
The bad news? Obtaining power sows the seeds for our downfall.
This is the “paradox” of Keltner’s title: it is true that being nice is the best path to power, but achieving power reliably turns people nasty. “The seductions of power,” as he puts it, “induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place.” Research demonstrates that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively: to have affairs; to drive inconsiderately; to lie; to argue that it is justifiable for them to break rules others should follow; and, in one entertaining study by Keltner and his colleagues, to steal sweets from children. Rich people even shoplift more than the poor. All in all, accumulating power seems to trigger a tendency to self-absorption: in experiments, when people are asked to draw the letter E on their own foreheads so that others can read it, powerful people are more likely to draw it the right way round to themselves, and backwards to onlookers. In a literal sense, they no longer see the world from other people’s perspective.