Francesca Gino, Leigh Plunkett Tost, and Richard P. Larrick have conducted a fascinating study on power and leadership. For one of their experiments, the scholars used the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation that Amy Edmondson and I developed. The simulation enables students and executives to learn by doing. They experience challenging team decision-making in a virtual climb of the world's tallest mountain. Participants work in five-person teams in this virtual climb, and they face increasingly challenging decisions as they ascend the mountain. One person serves as the leader. Four others adopt pre-assigned roles, such as a team physician and team photographer.
The scholars decided to modify the simulation, by asking some leaders to consider a time when they had control/power over others. They asked those leaders to write about that situation, prior to conducting the simulation. Other leaders did not engage in this "priming" exercise. What did they find? The "high-power" leaders (those primed to think about a situation in which they exercised power/control over others) tended to dominate the group conversation. Their comments accounted for 33% of the air time during group deliberations in the simulation. The other leaders only spoke 19% of the time! Did the difference in leader behavior affect group performance? It did! The groups with "high-power" leaders achieved 59% of their goals (slightly below average in my experience running the simulation). The teams without a dominating leader achieved 76% of their goals, a very solid performance. Why? The teams with a dominating leader missed key clues and did not share and integrate information effectively. Gino explains, "Even subtle ways of making people feel powerful have powerful effects on behavior."
Imagine, then, the effect that truly powerful executives have on group deliberations. If this simple "priming" had such a significant effect, what is the impact of a dominating, charismatic, powerful chief executive in "real world" settings?