The tipping point rapidly has become the toppling point for a puzzling assortment of personalities on the world stage who have persuaded themselves that they are infallible simply because they are powerful figures in their fields.
Muammar Gaddafi is being described as “delusional” by former cohorts. His 42 years of power over an indisputably oppressed populace has persuaded him to declare in the midst of revolution, “All my people love me,” despite the determination of those people to take up arms and shed their own blood to remove him from his position of power.
Friends of Charlie Sheen, a self-described comedian, likewise are calling him delusional for abusing himself and his power position atop the TV ratings, while rebuking the creator of the series that brought him fame and fortune and demanding a 50 percent raise to $3 million an episode from the producers of “Two and a Half Men.”
Fashion Designer John Galliano, among the most powerful trendsetters in the fashion industry, feels free to publicly berate strangers in bars and proclaim his love of Hitler, apparently persuaded that his power endows him with the right to do so. That power earned him his walking papers from the House of Dior.
This surge in seemingly inexplicable self-destruction offers a new perspective on the observation, made nearly 125 years ago, by England’s Lord Acton:
“All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men . . . There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
What we currently are witnessing is not only the ability of power to corrupt those who hold it but, almost inevitably, the destiny of the powerful to destroy themselves when they are convinced of their infallibility.
With such outsized examples before us, can and should communicators play a role in attempting to define and deter delusional and destructive behavior on the part of clients, agencies and/or media figures? Are we merely observers and reporters of the perils that devolve from the persuasion of power, or do we have a stake in its outcomes as well?
Wherever positioned, communication professionals should be asking themselves these questions:
- Do the individuals I represent or support have a realistic grasp of their actual influence—whether within their organizations, within social networks or among their constituents?
- If I don’t know the answer to that question, how can I improve my ability to measure their influence?
- Are my communications honest in positioning these leaders so that they retain their credibility with their audiences, or am I seeking only to stroke egos that may one day inflate beyond retrieval?
- Have I provided the insights and executive-level training that my client deserves to enable him to avoid power-reinforced missteps in speeches and interviews?
- Have I urged my client to listen more than speak, to construct her communications on the interests and goals of her publics, and to acknowledge the contributions of all who have helped build a successful organization?
Power succeeds in persuading only when the powerful choose to isolate themselves from their publics and their responsibilities. As communicators, our commitment should be to stave off delusion with illumination.
—Steve Friedman is the director of editorial services at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.