Power Is an Addictive Drug

In this excerpt from his new book Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others Don't, author Jeffrey Pfeffer tells about one man's indulgences in the perks of power, and the devastating withdrawl when it was taken away.

PowerNick Binkley, a guitar-playing, song-writing (he has produced several music CDs) graduate in political science from Colorado College, with a master's degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, made a career in finance when he figured out he could not support himself doing music fulltime. Binkley joined Security Pacific Bank in California as an assistant vice president in 1977 and rose through the ranks, moving to the bank holding company's financial services systems division in 1983 and eventually becoming vice chairman of Security Pacific Corporation responsible for all the nonbanking subsidiaries, which included venture capital and personal finance (e.g., personal lines of credit). When Bank of America purchased Security Pacific in the early 1990s, Binkley became vice chairman and a member of Bank of America's board of directors with an extensive portfolio of businesses within the bank.

In his senior positions, first at Security Pacific and then at Bank of America, Binkley had all the perquisites of power. He recounted flying with the Security Pacific CEO in a private jet for a lunch in Japan and then flying back after the lunch. He had access to positions on nonprofit boards, tickets for the opera and symphony when he wanted them, and helicopters, private planes, and limousines to take him around. When Bank of America acquired Security Pacific, Binkley got a golden parachute to protect him in the event that he lost his job. Although encouraged by Bank of America's CEO at the time, Richard Rosenberg, to stay at the bank, Binkley figured that as a senior outsider, he did not necessarily have the most secure future, so he decided, as his parachute was expiring, to "pull the cord," leaving with some colleagues from the venture capital operation to form Forrest, Binkley and Brown, a venture capital and private equity firm that was backed by the Sid and Lee Bass interests of Fort Worth, Texas.

As Binkley described it, one day he was vice chair of one of the largest banks in the world, and the next day he was not. The transition was, to put it mildly, difficult. He notes that occupying a senior-level corporate position in a large organization requires an enormous amount of energy to get through the day. To be a public figure and perform at a high level requires an intensity that produces, in his words, "a caffeinated high." When you leave such a position and that level of activity ceases, it is almost, as Binkley put it, "like a car going from ninety miles an hour to a dead stop." When the adrenaline rush ceases, there is a visceral, physiological reaction. In addition to the change in activity and intensity level, there is also the change from being the center of a universe of people fawning over you and heeding your every request to a more "normal" and less in-the-limelight existence. As a high-level executive in a large corporation, Binkley observed, you are surrounded by "players"—that is, by people of equally high status. And when you no longer have that job, you lose these associations because most of the people are only interested in your companionship when you hold status and power. This feeling of no longer being a player or a member of the elite is a loss felt intensely by many who have been successful at the power-and-money game.

Nick Binkley described a withdrawal that had physiological as well as psychological components—he was literally ill and had difficulty sleeping. He could not imagine that withdrawal from hard drugs could have been any more difficult. The loss of power, even though voluntary, put stress on his marriage which, in the end, not only endured but became stronger. Today Binkley is a member of the outside financial advisory board of the San Francisco Zen Center; he also serves on corporate boards and is winding down the venture capital firm after some 17 years. He was attracted to the Zen Center's Buddhist meditation and spiritual practices when he sought help in coping with the "power withdrawal symptoms." In the center of frenetic energy and attention, it is difficult not to lose one's identity and values.

While I was visiting the London Business School in 2005, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, came to give a talk and promote his newest book. As Welch lapped up the adulation of the LBS students, I thought to myself, "Why is he doing this at this stage in his life?" One can reasonably conjecture, not just for Welch but for many other people who have left positions of great power and status and continue to serve on multiple boards and maintain an intense pace, that, accustomed as they were during their work life to days filled with frenetic activity, once out of the job they seek to re-create the same peripatetic life, the same adrenaline high, and if possible, the same level of adulation they once received routinely.

People have a heightened risk of death in the period immediately after they lose their job—and not just because of greater financial stress or the absence of medical insurance. As Michael Marmot, a British researcher on the effects of social standing on health, has written, one reason there is a connection between not working and health is because being out of work "represents loss of a social role and all the things that go with it."

Power is addictive, in both a psychological and physical sense. The rush and excitement from being involved in important discussions with senior figures and the ego boost from having people at your beck and call are tough to lose, even if you voluntarily choose to retire or leave and even if you have more money than you could ever spend. In a power- and celebrity-obsessed culture, to be "out of power" is to be out of the limelight, away from the action, and almost invisible. It is a tough transition to make. And because it is, some executives seek to avoid switching to a less powerful role—Sandy Weill of Citigroup and Hank Greenberg of AIG worked long past normal retirement age and finally were forced out by boards of directors of these large public companies when they refused to anoint successors. Bill Paley of CBS asked his biographer Sally Bedell Smith why he had to die as he maintained control of the media company into his eighties. These examples and numerous others illustrate yet another price of power—the addictive quality that makes it tough to leave powerful positions. But everyone eventually has to step down, and the druglike nature of power makes leaving a powerful position a truly wrenching experience for some.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher Harper Collins from Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others Don't by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Copyright (c) 2010 by Jeffrey Pfeffer.

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13 Comments

  • Phil

    This kind of addiction can be easily treated with willingness, strength, focus, self confidence and desires.

    I assume this guy does not have any of this.

    Above all, the hardest thing to face is the same for all of us : emptiness.
    Some can face it, most can't and so, find occupations...

  • Christine Maingard

    Yes, power, in the way it is described here, may be addictive, but this kind of power is also an illusion - not because it is potentially short-lived, but because it may not have been true power to begin with. One should not forget that such perceived power could also imply weakness.

    Perhaps the best definition of power I’ve come across is the one by Carolyn Heilbrun: “Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter.” For those who possess this kind of authentic power, there is no addiction and no withdrawal.

    Of course, the transition from an adrenaline-rush working life to a point where one feels as if things have almost come to a standstill can be extremely difficult for a while. Such transition may produce psychological and physiological symptoms that have to be overcome. However, most likely these are due to the fact that both mind and body have to get used to a more natural pace of life, rather than symptoms associated with the ‘loss’ of illusionary egocentric power. In any case, I can’t quite imagine that it would be the same as someone would experience when stopping to take drugs.
    http://www.thinklessbemore.com

  • Dirk Reynolds

    Freed from the unnatural boundaries of a job description, in the past three months I accepted more challenge, learned more and worked harder than I ever have. It's very satisfying. The crux of this article is that power is addictive for these high level executive types. Nick Binkley and his cohort of ex-CEO withdrawal sufferers talk about the rush of running with the dogs and having strangers appreciate what you do, and how crappy it feels when you're not doing that anymore.

    My own experience tells me human beings feel good when they exercise their will with some amount of success. These guys do it big, competing hard against other egos. I want to complain about how this small self indulgent class always rewards itself at the expense of people in the trenches. Leaders are vital, but without the rest of us they're useless.

  • Don Joseph Goewey

    The adrenaline and other stress hormones producing the mania it takes to achieve and sustain the kind of power described in this article emanates from a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala. In its heightened state, the amygdala is pure stress, fear and unadulterated aggression. It can commandeer the brain's executive function and use its intelligence to master mind an ascent to power. When these primitive neural circuits take control of the brain, it does so at the expense of the better angels of our nature, meaning higher order brain function such as empathy, love and the sense of morality that transcends a limited self-interest to act for a greater good. Love, empathy, and moral fiber are actually neural circuits that stress hormones shrink. These hormones also shrink neural circuits that generate the emotional, social, analytical and creative intelligence that turns talent into genius. Unfortunately, big banks and Wall Street are filled with unleashed amygdala’s, speeding through life at 90 MPH with only an aggressive self-interest for a compass. Is it any wonder what this can do to an economy and a people. Neurologically, it is tantamount to setting a wild predator loose. Some think this aggression is the way human kind evolves to bigger and better things. Not so. It turns out the opposite is true. Neurologically, being at peace in a dynamic way expands and integrates the higher brain to make us powerfully creative, innovative, competent and successful and in ways that don't lay the world to waste. It’s the path from good to great. Neuroscience knows it. So do business gurus like Collins and Pfeffer. http://donjosephgoewey.com

  • Cybersleuth

    Before making such a transition from a large corporate atmosphere to a specialized area, he was hopefully preparing himself financially and mentally for the move. A routine work schedule gets mundane after a time and this was his opportunity to move on and try something more creatively challenging for himself. Keep learning and growing. The adrenaline high of accomplishing goals is what we all want in life and certainly true for gaining on-the-job growth. He's fortunate in that he has established his wealth and hopefully his health, as he ventures into a new arena of challenges. Not having to worry about living expenses as you progress is a load off that frees up your creative spirit.

  • Belinda Wagner

    I don't think one needs to have empathy for a person in such a situation to acknowledge its truth. In addition to the power addiction, these types also cling to an illusion that they are capable of having employees' interests at heart. Bull cookies! Not one of these power addicts has the least idea what the lives of the people that work for them look like. Yet they will sit there and spew paternalistic pablum at the drop of a hat. It is maddening, yet the addiction explanation is right on the mark. Our term for it is "mainlining the Koolaid."

  • Carol Sanford

    Very provocative story. Just ordered the book. I engage with CEOs a great deal and have one other take on some CEOs, not all, that explains the "let down". Many get used to making a difference, making a contribution because the power enables that. Part of the loss is not only to the lower nature of power being exercised, but power being used from good through the business. This may account for a smaller percentage, but I think an growing number who have seen themselves as leaders of responsibility but suffer the drop off as well. A handful formed the the American Energy Innovation Council to create better energy policy and practice. That is a powerful way to redirect the power toward meaningful contributions.Maybe we need to create an institute that helps these folks find a way to do good with their power.

  • Scott Byorum

    As tough as getting off hard drugs? Tripe. What could he possibly know about that? I second Gen's remarks. I do not feel empathy for someone who's indulged in the luxuries of power and now has to be a regular joe with more money than I'll see in 100 lifetimes. Why doesn't he volunteer at the Mission St. soup house for a month to get some perspective if he's crying about losing his perks.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Thanks for the excerpt. You've provoked me to go out and buy this book.

    I wonder if it covers not only the price of power for the powerful, but also for those who are their subjects, these days often their serfs. Most of us don't get to make our own destinies quite like the rich and powerful, don't get the adulation that breeds success (in that it gives the powerful a veneer that covers for their lack of genuine innovation, knowledge, compassion, or what not), and can't even help our friends these days when they start to go underwater.

    A book that speaks to that phenomena, the life-stunting that occurs due to hereditary and political legacies, or the foibles of trusting the powerful to truly know what they're doing with their and our lives too -- now THAT would be a book worth reading. I hope this is that, and not yet another guide for the powerful how to avoid losing power or the eroding working-class public's respect.

  • David VanderMolen

    I was attracted to this statement: “In the center of frenetic energy and attention, it is difficult not to lose one's identity and values.” It is my experience both as a leader and serving as a corporate consultant to leaders inside and outside of my company, that this is a profound and widely unrecognized issue in leadership. In an attempt to thwart the tendency leaders have to "lose themselves", we teach and practice the principles of "Reflect to Lead" and "Exercising the Power to Pause." It's not a cure, to be sure, yet they are pretty good practices to immunize leaders against losing themselves and their core amidst the emotionally intense pressures of leading others toward greatness.

  • Gen Hendrey

    I suppose I appreciate these points, but I cannot muster up a bit of empathy for the impossibly wealthy Binkley, who pulled his golden parachute's cord and decided to stop working. Yes, poor him! It was as tough as getting off hard drugs. Sure.

    Despite qualifying his statement later, it feels ugly to me that Pfeffer begins here with "people have a heightened risk of death in the period immediately after they lose their job."

    Sorry, but Binkley isn't "people."

  • Jym Allyn

    Thank you Dr. Harder.
    Your comment about power addiction being the downfall of today's hierarchal organizations is just as insightful as the article's insight as to the addictive nature of power.

  • Dr. Joseph Harder

    Interesting article, and it got me thinking about the juxtaposition of power addiction at the top levels of large organizations with the bundled set of human asset practices that Pfeffer (with John Veiga) report as contributing to real financial results ("Putting People First for Organizational Success").

    These seven practices include reduced status distinctions, wide information sharing, and extensive use of self-organizing teams...all of which fly in the face of hierarchical power (the others are careful selection, employment security, above average pay, and investment in training).

    It may be that overcoming this power addiction is imperative for today's organizations to be flexible, adaptable, and ultimately, successful.