Donelson R. Forsyth, a psychologist in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, comments on the upside and downside of power.

Forsyth holds the Colonel Leo K. & Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership.

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One of the paradoxes of leadership, Forsyth said, is that power has an upside and a downside. “When people feel powerful, they become physically and socially more active — they tend to act rather than react,” he said. Power enhances “executive functioning,” helping leaders plan, decide and set goals more quickly and efficiently. “So they are more likely to reach the goals they set for themselves and for their unit,” he said.

Then there’s the dark side.

“Powerful people feel that they are entitled, that they get more of the group’s resources and that the rules the group has established for the rank-and-file members do not apply to them,” Forsyth said.

“When individuals gain power, their self-evaluations grow more favorable, whereas their evaluations of others grow more negative,” he said. “In some studies powerful people lose their ability to anticipate other people’s reactions to their behavior — their emotional intelligence drops.”

In addition, Forsyth’s own research has found that individuals who feel powerful are more likely to surround themselves with “yes-men,” preferring to recruit those who agree with them from the outset rather than those who challenge them.

A naval vessel is a “floating community,” Forsyth said, “and as a result the social relations among members likely are very different — more intense, more dense, more psychologically important — from those in other military settings. I would assume that this intensification of relationships can cause commanders to make mistakes in their judgment, as the work relationship becomes mixed with the personal relationship.”

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Professor, Colonel Leo K. & Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership
Group Dynamics
Social Behavior
Psychology of Morality