April 17, 2015

When Power Overthrows Common Sense

blinders1I’ve witnessed it before. I’m certain I’ll witness it again.

Someone is promoted to a senior leadership role. Deserved or not, everyone knew it was coming.

She surrounds herself with familiar, friendly faces. Some call it nepotism.

Words. They can be so funny, so revealing.

Nepotism comes from the French word népotisme and from the Italian word nepotismo. The etymology informs us that nepotism is formed through a relationship, thus, there is a ‘relationship’ with the word nepotism to the English word ‘nephew’.


History tells us that there were so-called “nephews” of various Popes — who fathered illegitimate sons — for whom the Popes provided the boys with specific privileges and powers. Hence, nepotism.

Surround yourself with like-minded ‘nephews’ and then assign plum positions via nepotism and something else comes into play.


As Wikipedia informs us, groupthink is:

A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

When you combine nepotism with groupthink, the leader has entered into a new form of power.

I like to refer to it as ‘(un)common sense’.

In her 1979 piece, Power Failure in Management CircuitsRosabeth Moss Kanter beautifully summarizes what becomes of leaders in an organization when their power is enhanced by new titles and positions:
“What grows with organizational position in hierarchical levels is not necessarily the power to accomplish — productive power — but the power to punish, to prevent, to sell off, to reduce, to fire, all without appropriate concern for consequences. It is that kind of power — oppressive power — that we often say corrupts.”

We might suggest the leader has lost all common sense, as a result of this newfound power, aided and abetted by these acts of nepotism and groupthink.

My friend, this is not a good thing.

In the pursuit of power, many leaders believe it’s a good idea to adorn themselves with ‘horse blinkers’. (Also known as horse blinders.)

These blinkers seem to come with instructions in which to invoke nepotism and groupthink. Despite every management article known to humankind suggesting leaders in new positions of power should be doing the exact opposite, there continues to be example after example of leaders who succumb to the blinkers.

It’s bonkers.

When power overthrows common sense, the organization splits into a dizzying array of cliques, camps and confusion.

When power overthrows common sense, the hallways, water coolers, emails and conference calls become emblazoned by chit-chat that runs contrary to the organization’s true purpose.

When power overthrows common sense, therein commences the demise of an engaged organization.

I’m certain employees don’t want to be a part of it.

That sentiment also includes me.


Dan Pontefract is the author of FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. He’s finished writing his next book — DUAL PURPOSE: Redefining the Meaning of Work — which will publish November 10, 2015.

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