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Power is power and people are people

A common trope one hears when discussing politics is the notion that if and when women, a specific minority, millennials (or any other underrepresented group), assume leadership, power will be wielded very differently in the world.

In the most simplistic version of this view, if this group ruled, a number of phenomena (like authoritarianism, racism, elitism, inequality, wars, etc.) would cease to exist. The same idea is raised when it comes to misbehavior in business: “If only we had more (fill in the blank) in the boardroom, this would not happen”. The problem with this benevolent view of reality is that it fails to account for the nature of power and the nature of people.

Of course it is important that societies give all its members an equally fair shot at exercising power in politics and business. The importance of political representation for all members of society cannot be overstated, if only for reasons of basic fairness. In addition, new leaders can bring fresh ideas and approaches to governing, and they may be less compromised with entrenched political interests (at least initially).

Power is power…
But access to power (like access to a lot of money) can make people do dumb things. History is littered with examples of people who lost perspective and became bad leaders favoring their own interests over those of the people they serve. Wielding power can become addictive for all, regardless of race, class, or generation. And many leaders have found that using power in a nakedly abusive way in politics or business for a long period of time can lead those under them to become obedient, further feeding that power addiction.

A recent and easy example of a female populist leader who led her country to ruin is Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner. And millennials are not immune either: Just take a look at El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele (39) who regularly trashes the media and is now widely feared for his increasingly authoritarian streak. Even former US President Barack Obama aggressively used drones (a technology that allows precision killing at a distance) in a way many consider abusive.

As Andrew Marantz points out in his book Anti-Social, which charts the rise of the radical right in the US (a nice read by the way): “We like to assume that the arc of history will bend inexorably toward justice but…The arc of history bends the way people bend it.”

…and people are people
What we need to understand about people is that we are constantly torn between what some scientists call “the old brain” which drives our emotions and instincts (i.e. wants more power, more money, more risk) and the “new brain” responsible for thinking, planning and caution. In our societies we tend to value risk takers and grand personalities and diminish the importance of thinkers and those who warn of trouble in the future. Ahead of the 2008 housing crisis, Wall Street was dominated by the risk seeking types, and those who warned us were seen as undesirable spoilers.

In addition to making politics and business more gender and race diverse, we should think of diversity in terms of personality types. We need to become more comfortable pairing the risk takers with the wise among us, the thinkers and the adrenaline junkies, the introverts as well as the extroverts. That means Wall Street doesn’t just need the “masters of the universe” who generate millions, but also the “nerds” who warn of danger ahead. In international politics sometimes we need the hawks (those more intent on aggressiveness toward adversaries) paired with doves (those keener on diplomacy) – often working concurrently.

What I’m (Re)Reading

I am in the middle of reading Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, and I can comfortably say it’s a game changer for me.

The book highlights how as a society we have come to undervalue introverts and overvalue extroverts at our own peril. Introverts are those who recharge and do their best work alone, and extroverts are those who need to surround themselves with people to feel energized and productive.

We have set up business to work in teams and to multitask, to the detriment of the quiet time some people need to come up with good ideas. No good idea is created by committee. The best ones come from people who do their best work solo (think Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates) and you need to give these people the resources and space to think, as well as giving them opportunities to work with others.

The book’s lesson is that we will be better off if we overcome what has become the ultimate form of acceptable discrimination: the shunning of the introverts among us.

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