Power, entitlement and hubris

In The Atlantic Chrystia Freeland charts The rise of the new global elite. Essentially, the super rich these days are richer than ever. Also, rather than being inheritors of old money, they’re now “working rich”.

With that goes a different quality of entitlement. So the new plutocrats may be less sympathetic to the less well off than their more aristocratic predecessors. She gives the examples of people like Lloyd Blankfein and Tony Hayward:

It is perhaps telling that Blankfein is the son of a Brooklyn postal worker and that Hayward—despite his U.S. caricature as an upper-class English twit—got his start at BP as a rig geologist in the North Sea. They are both, in other words, working-class boys made good. And while you might imagine that such backgrounds would make plutocrats especially sympathetic to those who are struggling, the opposite is often true. For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard—especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers—can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others.

This reminded me of this post by Dan Ariely: Power and Moral Hypocrisy. Researchers found that power corrupts – and that it corrupts all the more when the power holder feels he does so legitimately.

4 thoughts on “Power, entitlement and hubris

  1. Ian Glendinning

    Hi Johnnie,

    Normally find I agree with just about everything you post, but here I’m not so sure.

    Hypocrisy – yes, there is a lot of it built-in to the processes of power and management authority (and responsibility), but I do not see this as a corruption of the morality of individuals managers. (Management hypocrisy is a topic of mine after Argyris, Brunsson, et al.) Individuals vary in their personal morality, a moral individual is often humbled by the responsibility of such power and authority. What is “corrupt” is the idea that business management systems can isolate otherwise moral individuals from objective information – business objects (yeuch).

    Tony Hayward – a good example. I’m pretty sure he was a rabbit in the headlights at the limits of his competence during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and enquiry, but I just cannot see isolation, obliviousness and indifference in his behaviour – not even his “I want my life back too” remark, which was for me an expression of how much he was feeling it too, empathising, struggling with the complexity and enormity of the situation (even though I’d agree it was a bad rhetorical choice to make the comment that way.) I’ve no idea how good Hayward was as people manager, but I’ve no doubt given the scale and complexity of BP and his short tenure he could have had little effect on the team of US gulf contractors at the heart of the disaster occurring.


  2. Roy Langmaid

    It was established way back in the 60’s that those who have migrated from one social group to another are notoriously hostile to members of the old group. Smokers, Born again zealots are a couple of good everyday examples.

    Interesting how the recent programmes featuring MP’s trying to live in tower blocks showed them as unable and unwilling to put on the identity of the less well-off.


  3. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments. Ian: not sure we’re that far apart on this. We need to look at the system first for causes of behaviour (I’ve written before about the fundamental attribution error) and I think the specific examples cited are capable of different interpretations. So we don’t have to root morality in the character alone.

    Roy: Yes, another aspect that seems relevant and which shows that context can be sticky.

  4. Ian Glendinning

    Yes, the human individuals are part of an organic “system” … not a rush to “attribute” to objects / people. You/we got it.

    It’s a habit of mine to jump to the defence of individual managers and engineers when things go wrong – I wonder why 😉

    Coincidentally given the reference to Hayward above, I blogged some comments on the US Commission on the BP disaster, which was published today.


    (PS You may get this through more than one channel – I’m experimenting with filtered cross-linking between more than one blog and forum using twitter, facebook, linkedin, RSS and dlvr.it This was the reason I pinged you offline on the unmoderated comment – I was just checking things hadn’t fallen down between cracks somewhere. Sorry.)


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