Do I make you a little bit horny?

2006

No not me! It's just an extract from an email sent by Congressman Mark Foley, friend to the President and supporter of anti-predator legislation, to one of the teenage pageboys who act as messengers for the US Congress.

The scandal is now doing its bit to damage Republican chances at the mid-term elections this autumn since it damages the party's claim to the moral high ground, not to mention appearing to be a half-decent (or should that be indecent) example of the abuse of power.

It's also an extreme example of what happens when those in positions of authority step beyond what was termed by Bernard Chester, an insightful management writer of the 1930s, as the "zone of indifference".

Stay within what the human systems around you consider as "acceptable" and people don't much care what you do – they certainly won't stop it. But stray across the line and resistance starts. A little like ignoring the oil warning light in your car. Friction starts and if no action is taken, it quickly becomes an expensive repair job (we're talking the scary "it's the head gasket" pronouncement).

Happily for power-wielding, sociopathic miscreants everywhere, resistance is not an automatic result if those to whom some thing bad is being done don't actually know what is going on.

Keep the misuse of power invisible and the majority won't complain

Keep the misuse of power invisible, disguised, or unquestionable and the majority won't complain. If they do complain they won't revolt - and if they do revolt they will still return to work on Monday.

An occasional riot or intemperate criticism of holders of formal authority may even strengthen their position as it can be held up as an example of the work of evil-doers and misanthropes.

Argue back against me and I will label you an "enemy of the state" or just, "not a team player" even when backed into a corner by overt use of (often macho) power language ("defy us and we'll bomb you back to the Stone Age" or "my way or the high way" pronouncements).

But once the Congressional page boys (is it only me that finds this system a little creepy?) were able to step beyond the structure of the system within which they work and conclude that they found Foley's emails beyond the "zone of indifference" (despite any potential, real or imagined rewards or sanctions) it was a relatively simple mental step to make them public.

This quickly led to Foley's resignation, an FBI investigation and hurried denials of prior knowledge from anyone who ever knew him (except from those who the public record apparently shows did know but still did nothing).

The much more difficult challenge, if you are the one with the formal authority, is to resist the temptation to use coercive or directive power when to do so would be much easier but much less effective.

Collaboration and consultation are the best routes to marginalising negative opposition, but this approach pits unpredictable short-term consequences against an open, improving long term.

But it's really hard to be patient and believe this when you could be having megalomaniacal fun ordering around armies of consultant-storm-troopers. That's what Disney did, according to David Koenig, author of "Mouse Tales", when it sent McKinsey Rotweillers into its maintenance department - and turned its 42-year spotless safety record on its head as key staff either lost their jobs or lost their hope and innocent bystanders started getting maimed and killed by once-safe attractions.

And of course it is even harder to change something in the structure itself against the resistance of those who have the money, the weapons and the image and are not afraid to abuse them. For that it is necessary to become a student of power; how to get it and what to use it for.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.