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A Myth of Power: “Hey Beth, You Shouldn’t Have to Wait”

In an informal observation, a group – comprised of one person identified as the leader and several of their staff – was served a plate of cookies. There were precisely enough cookies for everyone to have one, and then there was one extra cookie.

Those not identified as the leader politely took one cookie each and left the spare. After a bit of time, the identified leader walked up and took the extra cookie. To my surprise, this occurred in group after group.

The other surprising (to me, anyway) behavior was most times the leader chewed their second cookie with a wide-open mouth and loud chewing noises in an apparent disregard for the others in the room.

I can only imagine that some of the newer staff members watched the leader and wondered: How did that person ever make it to this level of status? I can imagine you might be wondering that, too.

Hopefully, today’s article will give you some insight, serve as a cautionary tale if you have aspirations of leadership, and also give you some tools to avoid hogging the last cookie or chewing with your mouth open.

The research of Susan Fiske, Ph.D., an expert on the impact of power on prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, tells us that the more power we achieve, the less we take a nuanced approach to reading and understanding people. Instead, the more power we have, the quicker we are to quickly stereotype others instead of taking the time to build connections and relationships. Why? Simply put, as our power increases we command more resources that, previously, we had to build relationships to acquire.

Dacher Keltner, the psychologist whose work informed the movie about emotions Inside Out, believes that powerful people believe the rules aren’t for them – but these leaders didn’t have that belief on their way up. If they had, they would not have made it to the top. This is called the Power Paradox, also the title of his book.

According to Keltner: “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place.”

I can tell you that I have sometimes fallen into the maw of the Power Paradox. One example is a thought I’ve had while waiting in the lunch line at a workshop I’m leading: Hey Beth, you shouldn’t have to wait. You are leading this thing. Just go to the front!

But cutting the line isn’t leadership. That is the stinking Power Paradox screwing with me by encouraging me to create a divide between myself and the workshop participants through a false sense of privilege that a tiny bit of power has afforded me.

The beauty of understanding the Power Paradox is that when you feel entitled to the extra cookie, when you make snap decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions rather than meaningful data, when you neglect to listen, connect, and get to know individuals, then you can stop, breathe, and behave more like the leader you want to be – and probably were before.

I make most of my income from dealing with leaders an organization feels are too valuable to fire, but most of the staff wonder just how the heck they made it to a leadership position. In confidential interviews, staff question how someone made it to the top who: exhibits a lack of empathy, is quick to offer harsh judgments, is impatient about hearing others’ input, is unwilling to express gratitude, and is sometimes stingy with earned vacation and time off.

Here are just some of the comments I hear:

“Are those the qualities that this company admires in leaders?”

“I feel like if I want to get ahead here I need to get meaner, and I’m not sure I’m interested in that path.”

“She is just a bully.”

“He only cares about the bottom line, not the people that get us there.”

But when I talk to those who were around when the now-bully or socially inappropriate leader was climbing the ladder, I hear the rest of the story and get the full truth.

Staff from the leader’s early days tell me:

“She wasn’t always like this. She was always quick to hand out compliments.”

“We were on a team together, and he was such a great collaborator.”

“When my mother died, he was so understanding. I will always appreciate that, but I’m not sure what happened. Last week he called me at home when I was out sick with a migraine and insisted I make a phone call for him.”

So, what happens between then and now? We wake up in the morning feeling powerful, and that feeling is reinforced by those around us all day – those who depend on us for a paycheck, a job, health insurance, or their promotion, and some who are still loyal to the person we were before the Power Paradox got the best of us.

One of my dearest and most successful clients has avoided the Power Paradox entirely. He has been the leader of an organization for 20 years, and he lives by a motto called Sweeping The Shed, based on the belief that everyone on staff – regardless of position – sweeps the shed where they house equipment used in their work. At its best, they sweep it together.

A big part of their work is providing an environment for youth to learn, observe, and practice leadership skills. The value of sweeping the shed is as important as any other aspect of leadership the staff demonstrates for the youth leaders.

The Power Paradox is both avoidable and remediable with just a bit of intention and focus. Here are some practices for being a Sweep-The-Shed kind of leader instead of an Eat-The-Last-Cookie kind:

Practice Empathy

  • Listen with curiosity and a desire to understand. You can practice by asking at least one open-ended question in every interaction.

  • Listen with gusto. Put down your electronic device and turn your body and eyes to the speaker.

  • Use words and phrases that express empathy and interest, and avoid offering quick suggestions or advice: “That’s fascinating”, “Say more”, “That sounds challenging”, “I’m sorry to hear that”.

  • Listen quietly and curiously instead of expressing negative judgment through statements like: “That’s not going to work” and “You’ll never get that idea through”.

Create Connection

  • Check in with staff spontaneously and often.

  • Start meetings with icebreakers and community-building activities.

  • Dare to be vulnerable and ask for opinions and help.

  • Acknowledge the strengths of others.

  • Laugh.

  • Eat lunch with the team.

Express Gratitude

  • Begin or end meetings with statements of what you are grateful for.

  • Acknowledge the skills of team members and how the use of those skills creates success or ease.

  • Send emails recognizing others.

  • Spontaneously and publicly praise others.

  • Acknowledge hard work and commitment of time.

Be Generous

  • Give your full attention to the people you lead.

  • Invite others to participate, or even lead, high-profile projects.

  • Offer compliments generously.

  • Give credit to all who participate positively and contribute to the success of your team or organization.

  • Share the last cookie.

  • Sweep the shed.

  • Eat last.

You can outsmart the Power Paradox. In fact, it isn’t difficult, and it is a heck of a lot more fun – and healthier – than falling into it. You will get to enjoy the connection with others, get a dopamine rush every time you compliment others, increase the engagement and success of your team, and create an environment where your people are eager to follow you!

How exciting is that?

Are you feeling challenged by the Power Paradox? I can help. Contact me today, and let’s talk about how a few coaching sessions can change everything for you!

Originally posted on

Have you had to work with that person who is too valuable to fire, but whose communication and leadership style continually makes others cringe and puts the company at risk? Beth Wonson’s unique combination of experience as a business expert, non-profit leader, 20 years consulting on team development, organizational change, and coaching leadership make her the go-to person for transforming personnel liabilities into personnel assets. “In my experience, no one truly wants to be the company bully, they just aren’t self-aware enough climb out of it. Their increasing isolation causes more and more drama within the organization. Human Resource staff feel powerless and over time, team members and colleagues choose to leave the organization. The remedy is simply to get this person the right coach. The coach who knows how to give them the hard feedback and will stand in the fire with them through the change process”. Wonson’s unique methodology combines brain-based research, experiential education and coaching to engage and empower individuals and teams to overcome perceived barriers and gain success.

Beth and her team work with businesses, non-profits and individuals across the United States.


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