Written by Rima-Maria Rahal
It’s no secret that leaders need power. Just like a driver without a steering wheel cannot direct his vehicle in the desired direction, a leader without power cannot influence his followers to work towards a certain goal. But where do leaders get their power from?
Power, just like many concepts, largely lies in the eye of the beholder. When we judge whether someone is powerful, we rely on a vivid stereotype of what a powerful person looks like and behaves like. Therefore, someone’s behavior can yield a plethora of cues, which observers will use to judge their power. For instance, people who smile more are seen to be more powerful. Similarly, more power is attributed to people who speak before others, gestures while speaking, and touch others.
However, that really is not the end of the story. Recent research has found that people who break the rules are also seen as more powerful. For instance, if you put your feet on the table or drop your ashes on the floor, observers will think you more powerful than people who stick to the rules. Now, why is that? Generally, we think that people who are freer to act at will are more powerful. By putting your feet on the table, you can demonstrate that social norms don’t restrain you, and that you will freely act as you please even if it means breaking the rules. What’s more, there are some indications that observers of rule-violations would be more likely to pick a rule-breaker as a leader than someone who sticks to the rules. It seems like, in part, rule-breakers could have an edge in becoming leaders in practice because they are seen to be more likely to become effective leaders.
Some real-life examples illustrate that rule-breakers could really have an edge to rise to the top. For instance, former Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer was a trouble maker before he rose to the top: not only did he wear trainers when swearing to serve his country, in his youth, he reportedly threw stones at a police officer during a demonstration. Moreover, Rob Ford, the current mayor of Toronto, Canada, was known to have abused drugs before he was elected to his office. It does look like the bad boys have an edge to make it to the top.
So, does that mean you should break the rules to rise to power? Well, it depends. If you want to create an image of yourself as a powerful person, breaking the rules seems like a good idea. However, you should take not to get slapped on the fingers for your transgression. If you get sanctioned, or if someone is watching you who objects to your transgression, breaking the rules will not get you more power. Moreover, negative ramifications for you if you break the rules could outweigh the benefit of a polished power-image.
Bottom line: a carefully calculated rule-violation can help you to get an edge over others, but it's a risky game to play.
P.S.: Please be reminded that although you might consider slightly bending social norms and unwritten rules, we under no circumstances advise that you break the law.
This material stems from research carried out by psychologist and eMUN-fellows.net project director Rima-Maria Rahal. Do not hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions or concerns - and please do share with us if and how you were able to apply these thoughts to your everyday life as a future global leader!
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