I recently heard an interview on my local public radio with a young woman on her struggle to learn the violin. She wrote a blog piece about it called The Virtue of Being Bad and concludes that being bad at something and persevering nonetheless is a virtue.
But here’s another reason why being bad is good. In looking at the corrupting influence of power, the culprit appears to the self-reinforcing nature of power. Power gives us the means to surround ourselves with people and places that reflect our rank back to us. And, as I write in The Expert Syndrome and the Problem of Transfer, it’s easy to transfer our sense of mastery in one domain to all domains, thinking we are truly invincible:
The sense of power we have gained is comfortable and fortifying; the energy we have invested in getting to this place of expertise is too much to just walk away from. This rank and expertise is reinforced daily, by every person who relates to us in that role. Every encounter adds to the identity. And it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism; the more comfortable we are in that role, the more we surround ourselves with people who relate to us in that role.
Our rank allows us to surround ourselves with people, places, contexts, roles, that reinforce our rank. The more we stay within the context in which our rank is ratified, the greater the danger of identifying only with our rank, beginning to believe in our infallibility.
Is there a solution? No. But there are things we can do in leadership positions to mitigate this tendency. One of them: be a beginner at something. Be bad at something. Put yourself in positions of uncertainty. Remember your beginner’s mind. Above all, leave the “office,” literally step outside that context in which your rank is reinforced. For some people, having children is that humbling experience. For others, it might just be learning the violin. Every position of power is upheld by its context. And while it won’t solve all the problems of abuse of power, learning who we are outside that reinforcing context should be a requirement of ourselves and others in leadership.