Breaking Bad, is a universally acclaimed award-winning drama built on chemistry, cancer, and crime. It’s also the story of the erosion of a man’s soul as he gains power. As the protagonist, Walter White (played masterfully by four-time Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston) is a mild mannered high school chemistry teacher who is struggling financially.
In the first episode of Season 1, White is stunned to learn he has inoperable lung cancer. Soon thereafter, his wife tells him she is pregnant. Desperate to make sure his family will not be financially insolvent after he is gone, White turns his chemistry skills into what will catapult him into becoming a meth lab king. A series of criminal circumstances rapidly moves White from valuing family above all to an earthquake-like destruction of his values as he gains more and more power.
Scott Meslow, The Atlantic writer, believes that “Walter White was always a bad guy.” Whether or not you agree with Meslow, you would likely agree that power has a psychological, emotional, and spiritual impact on all humans.
As someone with over 40 years of experience coaching leaders, including 75 of America’s Fortune 100 companies, the impact of power on the soul is a subject that I am forever dealing with. Here are five critical factors that I have identified that can propel people in power to lose their soul. Each one is progressively damaging and damning.
1. Transferring Status Affirmation
Power creates status. Status can lead to a sense of superiority. When the affirmation by employees is no longer enough, some leaders seek to transfer and expand their status affirmation to the public. They join elite clubs, they make showy donations to non-profits, they get write-ups in the media. The soul’s appetite for affirmation can be insatiable.
2. Increasing Social Disconnectedness
The research is definitive. Employees tend to withhold information from leaders out of fear. They fear their comments will be taken personally. They fear they’ll seem disrespectful. They fear they’ll lose their job. When people take leadership positions, they can become disconnected from their employees and, ironically, from the very group they are put in a position to serve. The soul is no longer nurtured by the truth.
3. Empathy Deprivation
U.C. Berkeley Professor Dacher Keltner documents how leaders can become deprived of empathy in his new book, The Power Paradox. Keltner’s research confirms the axiom that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The reason for this corruption lies in neuroscience. Under absolute power, the frontal cortex is suppressed by the neural transmitters that produce empathy. When we lose the ability to empathize, we treat people like tools or overhead instead of fellow human beings. We disconnect with them as people with dignity, families, and their own personal dreams. The soul is deprived of empathy.
4. Downplaying Personal Responsibility
Leaders with a growing appetite for power maximize the mistakes of others and minimize their own impact on performance. They launch activities for others without considering the resources needed to accomplish their ideas. They procrastinate then switch priorities in mid-project. When they learn about delays in progress, these leaders blame others and question the loyalty of their team members. The soul is separated from response-ability.
5. Reality Distortion
As the soul dies and nurturing relationships erode, the power-hungry leader begins to change the narrative to justify his actions. I have seen leaders fire highly qualified, loyal employees and accuse them of being incompetent rather than listen to their counsel to face reality. I have seen leaders constantly shuffle key players like a shell game to hide the reality that the person who needs to go or change significantly is himself. The soul loses touch with its why.
You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. Don’t let the need for power remove you from the critical care your soul needs.
Question: Is your soul dying a little bit each day?