They say you should be careful how you treat people on the way up, because chances are you’ll be bumping into them again on the way down.
A long while ago, I knew a woman who was a top aide to a political figure. Her boss was a pretty big deal in certain circles and her position gave her an unusual amount of power, which she wielded like a petty tyrant. She was, after all, immune from any consequences. She was decidedly unpleasant to work with or even to know.
Eventually, the politician term-limited out after a longer than normal run and the aide found herself out of a job. For some reason, her well-connected boss didn’t or wasn’t able to help her find a new gig. Interesting. And while the many people she knew were polite when she called, they weren’t willing to help either.
Door after door remained closed. She’d been so unpleasant, people weren’t willing to give their imprimatur to her skills or her personality. She treated most so shabbily they simply wouldn’t put themselves out for her. And probably took some pleasure in the payback.
She was finally able to eke out a minimal living doing her own thing. But it was a clear study in consequences.
Some years ago I knew a corporate executive for whom “unpleasant” was too weak a word. He was pretty high up on the totem pole but not at the top. People at the top more often than not are more humble. He had no idea how to get performance out of people with out abusing them. I had a real problem with that and made it clear to my own superiors that I wouldn’t work with him. I just got to watch. He was, as they say, a piece of work.
He was quite surprised to find himself on the street soon after a change in control at the top. It was obvious that he hadn’t seen it coming. I guess when you’re so busy cracking the whip you just don’t pay attention to the signs.
Unlike the political aide, after his demise, he recognized that his behavior hadn’t won him any friends. Surprisingly, he made some effort to apologize. Not a big effort, and he sort of danced around it, but notable anyway.
It would make a nice ending to report that karma reigned in these cases. But I’m not sure of that.
I ran into the political aide not too long ago. She’d married very well and now has a good bit of ascribed power. That’s a sociological term that means power you get from your husband’s power.
The corporate exec spent a bit of time consulting on his own and then hooked up with a name brand consulting firm that had no way of knowing his history of treating people so badly.
I’m not really certain that either of these people learned much as a result of their temporary downfalls.
Behavior within organizations is learned over time and becomes habit. It is, after all, hard to teach a old dog new tricks. (Or a new dog old tricks, as I know first-hand with Riley.)
It’s true that the aide has less opportunity to wield real power because she no longer works. She seems happily married now and that might have changed her for the better. Maybe. I’m sure she could abuse her maid, if she wants, though.
But the corporate exec may have been forced to change his tune: he is now a consultant. Consultants don’t have power–they have to land powerful people as their clients, which involves more time figuratively prostrate than he’s probably spent in years. He’ll have to retire the whip, at least when he deals with the outside world, and he may take a whipping or two himself, in time. Consultants always do.
No one teaches people how to use power. Some people handle it with grace and others become arrogant.
The historian and moralist Lord Acton knew what he was talking about when he observed that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The measure of a man (or woman) is in how he treats people when he has that absolute power (or its nearest kin).
And if he or she remembers that what goes up more often than not also comes down.