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Dean Blount's Blog
  The view from just beyond my window
  The view from just beyond my window
   

The Power Retreat
August 19, 2010

This week, I’m staying in a room on the ocean overlooking the rocky northern New England shore. Apart from the beautiful view, the room is austere – only about 100 square feet with plain white walls. I’m at a Jesuit retreat center on a seven-day silent retreat (note that you’re allowed to write as much as you want; it’s just talking that is discouraged…).

I’ve been making these retreats for four years now, and I was careful to negotiate time for this year’s retreat when I accepted the dean’s job last spring. But then last week I almost decided not to come, given the recent events with my daughter Haley and all of the people I still haven’t met and e-mails still to be answered at Kellogg. But Haley is doing well now. She tires easily, but it’s nothing that a little time won’t heal. (And she was sure to remind me that she likes me better after I come back from my retreats.) And as the Kellogg team reminded me, there will always be more people to meet and e-mails to answer.

Before I left, I was reading through the Wall Street Journal weekend edition and came across an article entitled “The Power Trip.” In it, Jonah Lehrer reviews recent psychological research on how having power affects people’s judgment and behavior. Deb Gruenfeld and Cameron Anderson, who have both done a lot of research in this area and started their academic careers at Kellogg, are quoted in the story. Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky, who also works in this area, is featured in the story as well. All three are also personal friends, so I’ve been reading their work for years.

A beautiful sunset nearby  
A beautiful sunset nearby  

 

 

 

They refer to their accumulated findings as the paradox of power. These findings show pretty consistently that once people are put in leadership positions, their self-regulatory systems become compromised. That is, having power literally does go to people’s heads. It makes them think and act differently than they did before having power and in ways that are not always good. As Lehrer summarized in the WSJ, “The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power.”

As you might imagine, I’ve thought a lot about these findings over the last few months as I’ve prepared to step into this new role. They’re pretty humbling. They mean that, if I want to be effective, I’ll have to be hyper-vigilant to how this new role affects my behavior and decision making. And I’ll need people around who will help me do that. I’ll also need to be very deliberate in what I do to keep myself centered and true to my ideals, to hold myself accountable.

And I’ve realized that one of the answers for me will be these annual retreats. There’s a simplicity of purpose in going off for seven days to listen to the voice within. The first day or two is always really hard – letting go of all of my relationships, attachments and the background chatter in my life. But as I work through loneliness and settle in, a renewed clarity emerges. I gain new insights on myself and where I’ve “traveled” since my last retreat. I gain new insights about my relationships and my work.

Amid the hub-bub that has erupted since my announcement as dean in late March, one of the hardest things I have found has been to hold on to my ability to hear my own inner voice each day – that inner place of wisdom and honesty. I’m really glad that I didn’t get distracted from coming on this retreat. I can hear it loud and clear again.

I welcome your comments, feedback and ideas at sallyblount@kellogg.northwestern.edu

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