Why is it that power corrupts leaders? So many good bosses seem to go off track as they rise through organizations.

Numerous studies show that people in power tend to become self-centered and oblivious to what their subordinates need, do and say. To compound matters, staff carefully scrutinize everything those in power do and say. These two phenomena merge into what Robert Sutton calls the “toxic tandem,” in his book Good Boss, Bad Boss.

As someone in charge of people, wielding power over others can cause you to:

  1. Become more focused on your own needs and wants
  2. Become less focused on others’ needs
  3. Act as through written and unwritten rules don’t apply to you

This isn’t the case with only a handful of personality types. Many people in leadership positions will fall into these power traps; it’s human nature.

In the work I do coaching executives, this is a huge eye-opener for most. We rarely see ourselves as others do. And most of us are subject to mind tricks like the self-enhancement bias. We naturally see our self in a positive light.

Good bosses have to remain on guard to avoid such power traps. They question themselves frequently. They become more self-aware. They ask for feedback and listen to others. Leaders must never forget how closely they are watched by their people, and they need to resist taking advantage of their position and ignoring others’ needs.

Great bosses protect their people, going to bat for resources and support. Even when they may suffer personally, great bosses are willing to take such risks. They shield their employees from red tape, meddlesome executives, nosy visitors, unnecessary meetings and a host of other time wasters.

“A good boss takes pride in serving as a human shield, absorbing and deflecting heat from superiors and customers, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks and battling back against every idiot and slight that makes life unfair or harder than necessary on his or her charges,” Sutton writes.

You know you’ve been successful when your subordinates believe you have their backs. Here are some suggested questions to ask yourself and others about the kind of leader you are.

The Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Do you remind yourself that your people are watching you closely?
  2. Do you avoid doing little things that undermine their performance and dignity?
  3. Do you ignore the little things that could be perceived as overuse of power?
  4. Do you realize that everything you say and do will be magnified in your subordinates’ minds?
  5. Do you see your job as caring for and protecting your people?
  6. Do you fight for them when necessary?
  7. Do you consider it too much trouble or too risky to battle superiors on their behalf?
  8. When your people screw up, do you take the hit or hang them out to dry?
  9. When you screw up, do you admit it?

I’d love to hear from you. What have you experienced as a boss with power? How are you able to show your people you go to bat for them?