Barslate & Leaders at all Levels: Prevent Power from Corrupting Your Leadership

Barslate & Leaders at all Levels: Prevent Power from Corrupting Your Leadership

Originally published at

We are all familiar with the warning that “power corrupts.” And if you’re like me, when you hear the phrase the first type of corrupted power you think of is greed. The ruthless Gordon Gekko from Wall Street comes to mind. If you shift the phrase to the military frame of reference, you might think of generals breaking joint ethics regulations on TD travel and contracting, or perhaps the senior leader with the moral lapse.

The commonality among them is a feeling of invincibility that either distorts judgment or severs behavior from prudent thought. When power is involved, we are all at risk.

The Subtle Shift

Something happened when I took command for the first time years ago. When I woke up that morning I had no authority, no official leadership position, little influence. But by 1100, I had more authority than I’d ever had before…and it was reinforced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice! Sure, I had a boss, but I also had power to run things the way I wanted to.


Most of us, however, wouldn’t immediately take this power to the extreme and start upending the organization. We have some humility, some perspective, and some deference to our bosses that keeps us in check. The problem isn’t that we would take the mantle of leadership and declare our omnipotence as leaders. The problem is that over time, our increasing comfort with power nudges us towards feelings of omnipotence and unless restrained, could lead to disaster.


In more recent years I had the experience that through rotational attrition, I became the senior member of a fairly autonomous staff team. On the team, I had routinely sought guidance from the more experienced members, which informed my judgment and tempered my actions. When facing problems, I asked myself, “What would LTC ___ do in this situation?

Similar to the first day in command, I took over this team and immediately realized it was my opinion that mattered most (and first) in the course of our duties. The heads were turned to me. So I did what anyone would do…I started slinging out answers.

What I didn’t remember to do was continue asking, “What would ___ do?” One day I was checking my work against a mentor’s example; the next I was making decisions based entirely on my own abilities. And that’s where the risk is. Transitioning from groupie to rock star happens all the time in the military – the key is not to lose perspective when it does. Start thinking you’re God’s gift to the organization and you stop challenging the strength of your leadership. You stop asking “What if I’m wrong?”, which is a powerful question for leaders to habitually ask.

Start with Velcro

As your rock star moment comes up, here are some ideas to prevent power from distorting your influence:

  • Remember that your rank is held on by Velcro. A boss of mine once promoted a Colonel to Brigadier General with the warning that it takes a lifetime to earn the rank but only a second to rip it off. There’s a lesson about keeping yourself out of trouble, but also one about humility.
  • Keep asking, “WW_D?” It helps to keep in mind the example of a trusted mentor or a professional whose performance you respect. Don’t try to be someone else, but you can compare your thoughts against their example to refine and improve your leadership.
  • Clearly define problems before slinging out answers. If you have the decision authority, you probably have some control over the decision window. Avoid responding to every problem with your first instinct, especially in the beginning of your tenure. Take a moment (or a day) to specify what is being asked, what the relevant factors are, who the key players are, what resources the problem will require, and what effects you want to achieve for your team. Then start issuing guidance. You will see two important effects:  1) You will increase the quality of your decisions, and 2) You will teach your team the level of analysis you expect from them before presenting future problems.
  • Create a conduit of accountability. As you gain authority (and usually autonomy along with it), find someone you trust and give them license to provide honest feedback. You could choose your senior enlisted advisor, your spouse, or a peer leader. Run your challenges and decisions by this person for a sanity check. As a side note, some people think forming this type of relationship with peer leaders (i.e. people you are evaluated against) is professionally risky. I disagree. The endstate of such lateral mentorship is ultimately better leadership for the Soldiers and stronger bonds between adjacent unit leaders. Those effects far outweigh concerns about career progression.
  • Ask for input from those you are leading. Yes, it’s ok to ask how you are doing as a leader.   Are you attending to the critical needs of your followers? Do you micromanage your staff or perhaps give too little guidance? Do intermediate leaders dilute your vision for the organization before it gets to the troops? We all think we’re hitting home runs until we open our eyes and see that the balls are barely clearing the infield. Ask the lowest level in your organization how things are going and you’ll gain invaluable perspective.
  • Maintain a habit of growth. It’s impossible to think you have all the answers if you have a habit of learning. Put another way…if you stop learning, it’s easy to think that you have all the answers (talent) you need to succeed. Acquiring new knowledge keeps you intellectually humble, which is a priceless trait for leaders to possess. Stay on the growth journey with books, videos, podcasts, articles, blogs.

Questions for Leaders

  • Have you stopped challenging the strength of your own leadership? What areas have you assumed success in and have ceased improving?
  • Who around you can provide an honest perspective of your impact as a leader? What questions can you ask them to gain that perspective?
  • Do your personal growth habits reflect a leader who is seeking new answers…or relying on old ones?


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