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The power paradox

The most effective leaders influence by example and rarely have to exercise their authority, says Jules Goddard.

By Jules Goddard 17 August 2018


In 1936 a young and penniless Viennese chemist from a Jewish family fled from Austria and arrived in Cambridge to study for a PhD. After the war, he was to become the “godfather of molecular biology”, the recipient of a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the molecular structure of haemoglobin and the founder of the most successful biological research laboratory in the world.

His name was Max Perutz. He deserves to be celebrated as much for the unique manner in which he ran his laboratory as for the brilliance of his own scientific discoveries. In 1947, he won support from the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) to set up what became the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). The only other staff member was John Kendrew, Perutz’s first PhD student, who would share his Nobel Prize 15 years later, by which time the unit had grown to 90 researchers; among them Francis Crick and James Watson, the joint discoverers (with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin) of the molecular structure of DNA.

Perutz was the chairman of the LMB from 1962 to 1979, its most illustrious period. By the time of his death in 2002, this single laboratory had amassed nine Nobel Prizes (shared among 13 scientists), four Orders of Merit and nine Copley Medals (the highest honour awarded by the Royal Society).

Perutz’s lab

How did Perutz achieve so much? First of all, he kept the administration of the lab to a bare minimum. This is how he characterised the culture he sought to create: “Creativity in science, as in the arts, cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organisation, inflexible bureaucratic rules and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned; they pop up, like Puck, in unexpected places.”

Distinguished Scottish pharmacologist Sir James Black summed it up thus:

“No politics, no committees, no reports, no referees, no interviews – just highly motivated people picked by a few men of good judgment.”

César Milstein, one of Perutz’s most distinguished research students, added: “I learned what research was all about… I always received an unspoken message, which in my imagination I translated as, ‘Do good experiments and don’t worry about the rest’.”

Not surprisingly, Perutz’s lab became a magnet for the brightest young scientists, who all remarked on his gentleness, tolerance and appreciation of others. He was, said a co-worker, “a humane scientist who used his brilliance to illuminate and not to dazzle others”.

Perutz fostered independence of mind. He led by example, spending 90 per cent of his time working at the bench and expecting others to do likewise. He kept up to date with the work of colleagues by hooking up with them over lunch or coffee in the canteen that his wife, Gisela, had designed to act as the intellectual hub of the laboratory. He turned down a knighthood on the grounds that it might inhibit young research staff from talking to him. He was equally attentive to the work of the youngest and most senior scientists, all treated with the utmost respect, humanity and affection. He once said that his only responsibility towards his talented flock was to ensure that they got whatever they required to keep going.

Perutz himself would sometimes quote Albert Schweitzer: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.”

This sentiment goes to the heart of Perutz’s success as a leader. He knew instinctively that power is used most wisely and beneficently when it has no need to draw on the authority vested in it. It brings to mind Plutarch’s theory of the moral exercise of power, described 2,000 years earlier in Athens.

Plutarch’s exemplum

Human beings are intensely social animals whose behaviour is strongly shaped, whether consciously or not, by their fellow creatures. We become whom we spend time with, continuously using other people as models to emulate and standards to measure ourselves against. In the classical world, this technique was known as the exemplum, or moral example.

Today, modelling is recognised as a fundamental behavioural trait. As the social psychologist Albert Bandura has demonstrated in many celebrated experiments, “Most human behaviour is learned observationally, through modelling. From observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed and ... this coded information serves as a guide for action”.

This helps explain why many emotional and behavioural problems – anger, loneliness, jealousy, various forms of addiction – are thought to be grounded in social contagion. We’re more likely to be angry if we mix with embittered people, hopeful if we associate with optimists, and confident if we’re among those who are self-assured. Contagion need not be unconscious and passive. We can actively construct our moral environment.

Well aware of this quasi-therapeutic method of personal development, the ancients deliberately used the exemplum to steer people in good directions. The most famous practitioner was Plutarch, the 1st century AD Greek philosopher, priest and historian. A born teacher, Plutarch cared passionately about how to instil character in young people and for many centuries his method was at the heart of Western education. Indeed, for many centuries he was regarded as “Europe’s schoolmaster”. Plutarch believed that each person was a combination of reason, emotion and habits and that, with encouragement, most of us can become suÔ¨Éciently self-willed to change our habits through the use of reason. We can select our role models. We can bring to mind great figures from real life, literature or history and resolve to live up to their standards. Plutarch argued that “character is habit long-continued”.

With this aim in mind, he composed his great work, Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans, more commonly known as Parallel Lives. In it he tells the inspirational life stories of 46 of the most eminent military and political heroes of his time, including Alexander the Great, Cicero, Brutus, Pericles and Pompey.

He wanted his readers not merely to hear about their deeds but to set their heart on living up to their example and steering their own course by them: “Our intellectual vision must be applied to such objects as, by their very charm, invite it onward to its own proper good. Such objects are to be found in virtuous deeds; these implant in those who search them out a great and zealous eagerness which leads to imitation.”

Different ages and ideologies alight on their own kinds of exemplum. Thus while the early Christians found Plutarch’s choice of heroes perverse, they nevertheless remained convinced that heroes served a noble purpose – so they invented the saint. In Renaissance Italy, Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists offered a heroic vision of the artist, while Machiavelli drew on the “actions of illustrious men” to educate the prince.

During the 19th century, writers such as Goethe, Carlyle and Nietzsche created the ideal of the Romantic hero.

Living in a post-heroic age

It has been suggested that, since the Second World War, the cult of the hero has waned. Today we are more likely to view a military leader such as Napoleon as a war criminal. Perhaps we regard ourselves as so egalitarian – and so free from any taint of elitism – that we no longer notice special qualities in others or feel that we have anything to learn from our forebears. Perhaps the only modern heroes are either those who are famous solely for being famous, or those who never had the temerity to seek fame but instead had it thrust upon them.

So, is Plutarch’s conception of the exemplum irrelevant to today’s world? Let’s step back and set the discussion in a broader theory of power and influence. Following Charles Handy, there is a distinction between the two. Influence means the use of power, whereas power is the resource underpinning it.

There are many sources of power – strength, position, connections, resources, expertise, character – not all of which are employed by those who have access to them. Methods of influence flow directly from these power sources, comprising such things as force, prestige, contracts, bureaucracy, rules and procedures, and persuasion.

These are all overt methods of influence.

But there are also tacit methods, two of which are pre-eminent. First, people’s attitudes and behaviour can be influenced by their immediate environment. Behavioural economists call this the “choice architecture” of the organisation; the manner in which culture and context combine to predispose individuals to behave in certain ways. Richard Thaler calls this the power of “nudge”.

Second, there is the influence of personal aura, or charisma, by which individuals exert a subtle but nevertheless profound impact on those around them.

So when today’s culture is said to be post-heroic, the interpretation may be that the expression of power is moving away from overt to more tacit methods – and that those subject to it are being influenced, not through compliance or identification, but as a result of internalisation: that is, the belief that the change is wholly of one’s own making and within one’s own control.

The LMB under Perutz was an exemplar of just such a post-heroic organisation. Perutz’s power resided in his character. He had no need to rely on his status, authority or expertise, or fall back on rules and procedures. Correspondingly, those open to his influence responded not out of compliance or identification with someone they particularly admired but through internalisation; the belief that their changing attitudes or behaviour were entirely their own making. Perutz was the kind of leader who didn’t need – or seek – to take credit for the influence he had.

Handy has described this quality as, “magnetism… the unseen drawing- power of one individual… the invisible but felt pull of a stronger force”.  He could have been describing Perutz himself. “Trust, respect, charm, infectious enthusiasm, these attributes all allow us to influence people without apparently imposing on them.” This kind of power, like beauty, paradoxically lies in the eye of the beholder.

'All managerial theories rest on the premise
that the organisation is the end to which its employees are the means’

The firm as a kingdom of ends

The destination of this argument is that the ideal form of organisation is one which bears the closest possible resemblance to the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of a “Kingdom of Ends”. In an elegant thought experiment, Kant imagined what an idealised society would look like if its members treated each another purely as ends in themselves and never as means to an end for other people.

He derived this hypothetical community from the second formulation of his categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

If everyone lived according to the categorical imperative – doing to others as they would be done by – the outcome would be a society that resembled his idealised kingdom.

Kant recognised that individuals have different aims and interests – indeed, this is what makes them distinctive persons and moral agents. But a just society cannot simply be one in which each individual pursues his own ends, oblivious to the concerns of others. This would dissolve into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”.

What Kant sought was a rational method of abstracting from personal differences and private ends to establish a principle by which the common interest is best assured. This would be a community in which legislation would be there not to serve partisan interests, but to transcend them and meet only the shared interest.

In Justice as Fairness, John Rawls invented a famous theoretical device for analysing this problem. He proposed a “veil of ignorance”, behind which no individual would know anything of their own particular circumstances or talents, or their position in society. Rawls paid particular attention to a just distribution of wealth, but his thought experiment applies equally well to the question of power. I suggest that, behind a veil of ignorance, very few people would design the organisational forms in which we live and work today.

The language and practice of management – at least in its normal, everyday form – typically offends against this principle. It is impossible, for example, to imagine an organisation reliant on “rule by management” that does not also feature strongly instrumental behaviour among its members. All managerial theories, from Frederick Winslow Taylor onwards, rest on the premise that the organisation is the end in the service of which its employees are the means – so economists model labour as a “factor of production” like capital or land or equipment; accountants measure human capital as a cost to be optimised; and corporations treat employees as “human resources” to be put to work as management sees fit.

Most theories of leadership make the implicit assumption that the world is divided into those who lead and those who are led, so it is right and natural that the former should be free to exercise their own agency to a much greater degree than the latter. Likewise, hierarchical relationships, reporting structures, control mechanisms, sign-off procedures, financial incentives, planning systems, commitment processes – indeed, all the paraphernalia of a modern-day bureaucracy – offend against the idea of the organisation as a kingdom of ends.

When, in his prophetic book Images of Organisation, Gareth Morgan characterised some corporations as “psychic prisons”, he was observing how far short so many firms fall from the ideal of the good organisation. That’s true. Yet in Max Perutz’s LMB we get a tantalising glimpse of how close it is possible to get to a true kingdom of ends, a veritable embodiment of Kant’s thought experiment of over 200 years ago – and how much more rewarding, in every sense, such an organisation would be.


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