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Power can make you a bad listener

It’s a given in political circles: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But did you ever stop to think, why does this happen?   The truly horrible tyrants down through history from Nero to Hitler started with bad childhoods and went downhill from there. But plenty…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
It’s a given in political circles: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But did you ever stop to think, why does this happen?
The truly horrible tyrants down through history from Nero to Hitler started with bad childhoods and went downhill from there. But plenty of good leaders who started off with fanfare have come to a sad, smoldering end, the product of too much success.
We could just write it off to the sinfulness of man, but let’s look a little deeper – the seeds of this kind of bad behavior are in all of us. What was it that sent popular presidents like Nixon and Clinton headed down the road toward impeachment?  What undermines a person’s character as they accumulate power? Certainly having more influence can make you puffed up and self-important. You can be become less accountable and more prone to give in to the temptation to take shortcuts. And one of the most tempting shortcuts is to stop really listening to people.
You may say, “Well, I don’t have a lot of power – it’s not a temptation I face,” but we all wield influence at some level. If you’re raising children, you wield enormous power and as they get older and more complicated, tuning them out may seem like the only way for you to maintain your own sanity.
As we get older, we tend to become more powerful. And if that’s you, it may no longer seem important for you to listen to other people.
So many people want to talk to you and listening to them can be
exhausting. Listening well means staying open to unpleasant truths,
truths that may necessitate change and even apologies. Few powerful
people have the emotional reserves to continue to listen well. Why go
through the pain of dealing with an uncomfortable reality when your
life seems just fine without it?

What makes things worse still is that the more successful or powerful you become, the greater influence you have in many people’s lives. And then, because you are able to help them, the people you influence often become less willing to tell you unpleasant truths. Why? Because to do so might be to jeopardize your favor. This principle explains one reason why powerful people are often surrounded by sycophants. 

I try to counter this tendency by constantly asking people questions and by making continual improvement an objective.  Still, the temptation to stop listening is ever before me as my world gets busier and more people have access to me.  I was talking about the issue with Karen and asked her why she thought powerful people become poor listeners. Her answer was, “Maybe as they get busier, powerful people have less time to really listen. And maybe they become more adept at getting enough information to make a quick decision.”

That’s a more charitable way to look at the issue. Whether it’s because their brokenness sends them down the easier, more comfortable road, or because they have to cope with increased time pressures, it’s apparent that the seeds of their own destruction are sown into the process. Given that dynamic, it would seem that the only way to cope with success is to make yourself accountable to others for the way you listen and solicit feedback.  

Comments (8)

  • I have this problem with a Sunday school preacher right now, he’s so “busy” he doesn’t have time to listen or return phone calls. Yesterday I really needed to speak with him and he promised to call me back but I’ve not heard a word from him. What do you say to someone in a position of authority who isn’t listening? Is it even my place to point it out?

  • My comment has more to do with the photo you selected as I recognize two of my faves, Claud and Mary! And I know what great listeners they are!

  • This is an extremely important truth. It is the difference between a trustworthy leader who stays connected and an unsafe one who is on his ownand doesn’t know it. The listening leader relies on others and has a Life-giving spirit; yet the other often appears (and feels) more successful. The line is so easily crossed and is difficult to discern. Lord, help us.

  • In the kingdom being powerful really isn’t our objective is it? Didn’t Jesus say that the greatest among us needed to become the weakest or the least? If we look to him as our model, Jesus was the most powerful person to ever walk the earth and yet somehow I think he had time to listen to anyone who came to him. He was humble and took time to listen, he took time to care about people. Jesus was powerful but I don’t think he wore that power on his sleeve like a medal. None of really powerful, we just think we are powerful…we forget that we are nothing but a vapor that could be snuffed out in an instant…I think when the powerful remember that they might start listening again with an attitude of humility.

  • I think there is a difference between listening to someone speaking using their natural ears and listening to someone using their spirit. Many times Jesus uses this quote “He who has ears let Him hear”.

    If someone is listening using their spirit then they will feel and respond much more quickly then if they were listening using their ears.But this can be sometimes misinterpreted as someone who isnt listening at all.

    Your ears will mean you are thinking about what was said by using your intellect and then reponding whith your own thoughts or perception.Whereas your spirit will react with any darkness,untruth or deception in an instant.

    I think it is then harder to actualy discern who is listening with their ears, who is listening with their spirit and who is just not listening at all!

  • Seth,

    This is one of the main areas that I honestly admire in you. You are amazingly accessible, electronically at least. I love using technology as a force multiplier and you do very well in this area. I never really sat down to contemplate just how costly that constant access may be to you and your spiritual walk.
    I personally feel uplifted if I tap you with some comment and you somehow find the time to answer right back. This is by in large the one thing that perhaps sets you miles apart from puffed up leaders. Jesus was accessible, because He recognized that this is the essential part of ministry, actually ministering to people’s needs. I encourage you to maintain the course, raise the sails and pray for more wind to blow in your life.
    I have the sneaky feeling that you are looking to retire. I might be wrong but you are giving off vibes my friend. I hope it isn’t so, although I could comprehend preparing the next generation and handing off. I just don’t ever feel a desire to retire any longer.
    I am hard pressed though as I field phone calls from far flung places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Honduras and others…so I feel a bit of your pain and I am just one single simple servant. Be blessed in all that you undertake for the Lord.

  • Wayne,

    This is a kind, encouraging thing to say. Thanks for taking the time to lift my spirit.

    Although I’m in a bit of a transition, I’m not ever going to retire. How does one retire from discipling, from sharing with those coming along behind the way of abundant living?

    I used to play golf, but that was before my life got crowded with people. I probably need to find a way to get things like golf back into my life – but retirement, God forbid.

    I’m a starter. The key is to start the kind of things that will bring the kingdom. I’m in the process of looking for new things now, but I’ll keep my hand in the places where God’s given me stewardship and relationships.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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