University of Southern California

Nathanael Fast
Title
The Power of Power
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nathanael.fast@marshall.usc.edu

How has power changed you throughout your career? Has it helped or hindered your ability to be an effective leader? Would you be better off if you had more?

The question of how power changes people—their perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors—is the driving force behind much of my research. In particular, my collaborators and I seek to uncover the systematic effects people experience as they move their way up the power hierarchy. In so doing, we hope to equip new generations of leaders with knowledge that will help them wield their power more effectively than they otherwise could.

So far, our work has identified two basic mechanisms by which power changes people. The first is through a sense of control. Colleagues and I have found that power often produces an illusory sense of control (i.e., perceived control over chance-based events and/or outcomes that stretch beyond the reach of one’s power). In turn, this elevated sense of control fosters optimism, positive views of the self, and a tendency to take action. In some situations these tendencies can be adaptive, but they can also hinder decision-making and produce detrimental consequences.

A second set of findings has shown that power comes with a strong social pressure to prove one’s superior competence. So long as the powerful feel competent, all is well. However, when people simultaneously have power and experience a lack of self-perceived competence, they tend to feel threatened and lash out with aggression. The same conditions can lead to arrogance. These findings suggest that many cases of hubris among the powerful might, in fact, be driven by feelings of insecurity.

The first step toward overcoming these potential pitfalls is to become aware of them and to use this knowledge preemptively. Marshall makes this possible not only by disseminating research findings to the public but also by attracting future leaders as students. Whenever I share my or my colleagues’ research findings in class, I can be confident that it is reaching the movers and shakers of tomorrow.

Given my research and teaching goals, the Management and Organization Department at Marshall is the perfect place to be—I’m surrounded by brilliant colleagues and students, ample financial and social resources, and all the additional support necessary to thrive as a scholar. I feel exceptionally fortunate!