The winner effect

The winner effect

Too much power can do very odd things to a leader’s head

Putin: dangerous changes? Wolfgang Wildner, CC BY-ND

World leaders who make war tend to have a particular personality profile called “high need for power”. American presidents who show this need have, throughout history, been more likely to take their country into war than those who don’t. Dwight Eisenhower didn’t show it for instance, while George W Bush did.

“Need for power” was identified by the great psychologist David McLelland as one of three basic, largely unconscious drives, which motivate people to different degrees. The need for power – the others are the needs for affiliation and achievement – is where you are motivated to dominate and control what other people want, need or fear.

In simulations of the Cuban missile crisis, where nuclear holocaust between Russia and USA was narrowly averted, people who score highly in terms of their need for power played the role of war room decision makers. They tended to take actions which would, in 1962, have resulted in nuclear war.

All leaders need to have a certain appetite for power – leadership is too stressful otherwise, and power’s effects on the brain acts as a sort of anti-depressant. But like all addictive drugs, too much for too long causes dangerous changes in the brain, which include reckless disinhibition, risk-blindness and difficulty in seeing things from other’s perspective: ex-UK Foreign Secretary Lord Owen has described this as the “Hubris Syndrome” which he diagnosed leaders Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and George W Bush, among others, as showing.

Few if any leaders can survive more than ten years of power without being tipped into this dangerous state of altered personality and increased desire for even more power. Most democracies have devised constraints – limited terms of office for instance – to counteract such dangerous changes to the brain.

Creating havoc

It is the neurologically-created conceit of many powerful leaders that – in the words of Louis XV of France – “après moi le déluge” (after me, the flood). Power fosters the delusion of indispensability and many political leaders have created havoc in fighting to stay in post because they genuinely believe their abilities are crucial for the survival of their country and that no-one else can do it.

Vladimir Putin has held power in Russia as president or prime minister for approaching 15 years – too long for any man or woman’s brain to endure without dangerous changes which foster recklessness and a blindness to other perspectives. The military incursion into Ukraine may be a particularly worrying symptom of this leader’s affliction.