The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Loose Influence, is a slim but insightful book on the relationship between power, the powerful, powerlessness and the powerless. “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place”, which is from the introduction, nicely sums up the premise.

The author, who uses his own experimental data and a number of graphics, makes a solid case for the phenomenon that others have labeled, incorrectly, as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Separating the Power Paradox into 20 ‘Power Principles, which are too extensive to list here, Dr. Keltner neatly lays out why leaders become leaders, and why they can go off the rails.
What is missing from the book, is historical perspective. It is filled with experimental data, but real world examples from business, or politics, would make for a more compelling case. One of the reasons that I appreciate the argument made in the book so much is due to the insights of Nassir Ghaemi in his excellent: A First Rate Madness which I reviewed here and is full (in retrospect) of historical examples of the Power Paradox in action.

From my own experience, I have seen the Power Paradox at work in supervisors and in myself. Terminology is, of course, a problem. I have always accepted that “power” means the control that your job, or position, grants you; whereas the ability to lead is granted through “authority.” Authority is given by a group. The Power Paradox lumps these both together, though it does make use of “empowered” but because of the larger framework of the “principles” this actually works. The definition of power and authority, may be too simple for such a complex subject, particularly when dealt with in such detail as here with “The Power Principle,”

The book becomes particularly interesting, and potentially controversial, when Dr. Keltner deals with gossip. Long considered a symptom of a potentially hostile work environment, Dr. Keltner makes the argument that gossip is how strong groups self-regulate and expose the “reputations of the selfish and the Machiavellian.” The author does recognize that gossip can be extremely harmful, particularly when it is abused by the powerful; however, the case for it not being the cardinal sin that we have long believed it to be – particularly if your goal is to have high functioning groups – is pretty solid.

Annoyingly for a book written by an academic, but probably a sop to writing a pop-science book, the footnotes are exiled to the end of the book, making following a path of enquiry more complex than it really needs to be, but this is a small criticism of a great leadership book. It is particularly useful for those who have been in leadership positions for a while. There are lots of books out there on how to become a leader, create functional teams, and even dealing with powerlessness; however, it is rare to find a book that addresses the dysfunction of leaders who get used to their positions, and why things can go awry.
For leaders, you need the book before you really need it, otherwise you will not stay a leader for long.