In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a video of Putin meeting with his security council was widely circulated. In it, Putin is sitting behind a large desk at the far end of the room, and way at the other end, are his advisors, sitting in a circle of chairs. 

One by one, he calls on each council member to hear their opinion on invading Ukraine. They stand up, each in turn, and with a discernable demeanor of timidity, state their opinion, that yes, Russia should invade. This carefully orchestrated production is meant for the viewer to believe that the invasion was a consensus. As if each council member could truly speak his or her mind.

To consolidate his grip on power, Vladimir Putin has created an echo chamber. He has surrounded himself not with the brightest but with the most obedient. Where there is absolute power, there can be no experts or equals. Just lackeys or enemies.

Putin may be an extreme example, but sharing power—allowing yourself to be swayed, encouraging dissent, compromising your position—all of this is central to democracy, and yet confoundingly difficult. 

Because whether you’re a teacher or tyrant, a President or priest, the temptations for using your power for personal gain and to stay in power are just too great. 

I’ve spent the better part of my career focusing on the competencies for using power wisely. Competencies are absolutely necessary but alone, they’re insufficient. Because self-awareness and our very best intentions aren’t enough to curtail self-interest and the temptations of power. Competencies don’t work where culture plays a role, where systems are weak and corruption is the norm. They need to be supplemented by controls and guardrails.

What are the guardrails? What, beyond our good intentions and self-awareness, is needed?


Legitimize Opposing Viewpoints

Democracy is based on opposition. But democracy degrades when we dismiss, criminalize, or vilify the opposition — threatening to put rival candidates in jail or seeding the populace with fears about election integrity.

Bringing this down to scale, we see delegitimize opposition when:

  • We dismiss people with opposing views, refusing to engage or entertain their position, “canceling” or firing them for their views
  • Managers disregard or dismiss an employee’s complaint about a co-worker’s inappropriate behavior by saying “well, that’s just the culture around here”
  • Leaders discourage debate or challenge, directly by taking silence as agreement or indirectly by criticizing or demeaning others’ opinions.

Whatever your base of power, whatever size your organization, it’s critical that opposition, challenge, and views counter to your own be a protected and sought-after part of your regime. You may not agree, and you’re free to debate, but you should never dismiss, criminalize, or otherwise delegitimize opposition.


Ensure Objective Oversight

Abuse of power flourishes where there is no oversight. The lack of consequences emboldens those who seek power and allows those who hold power to act with impunity.

Without oversight, we’re prone to conflicts of interest. We’re free to indulge our own needs. 

Even where oversight is present, it is often compromised or weak. For instance, regulatory bodies are staffed by former members of the companies they now oversee. A Human Resource department shelters toxic managers because their loyalty is to the executives and not to employee well-being.

If you sit in a seat of power, who supervises your work?

Who has the power to discipline or review your work? Are they truly neutral? Or do their self-interest compromise their neutrality? What are the standards or benchmarks for measuring your success, and who sets them? Do they serve your interests or that of your customers, employees, or clients?


Ensure Transparency

Without insight into how power is gained, used, or shared, people can’t participate in the system. Transparency into the rules of power is critical for democracy, but for all well-functioning systems. But the lack of transparency is all too often the norm, for instance, when: 

  • decisions are made behind closed doors;
  • there’s no clear pathway for advancement or promotion;
  • meeting agendas aren’t shared in advance, and people don’t know the purpose or the context of the meeting.

When the game rules aren’t evident, people can’t play. They can’t participate. They can’t make decisions. They can’t meaningfully contribute to the conversation. 

Hoarding information is a power grab.

Proper use of power means ensuring others are as informed as you are so that they can participate to their fullest. To do this, you have to …

  • Be transparent about where power resides. Too often, well-intentioned people with rank try to conceal or minimize their power, to act as equals. But it always backfires because minimizing power just makes it less transparent, not less lethal.
  • Make information easy to find. Even when there are transparent rules and procedures, consequences and repercussions, if those processes aren’t easy to find or easy to understand, then they’re not transparent.
  • Have clear processes for how decisions get made. When decisions are made in subgroups or cliques, you have to be ‘in the know’ in order to be informed, and that’s not transparency.

Power alone isn’t the problem. It’s when power is allowed to run amok that it becomes a problem, threatening to destabilize democracy and undermine our institutions. Legitimize opposition, ensure objective oversight, and ensure transparency. These are some of the guardrails of power. If these difficult times teach us anything, I hope they teach us how important it is to guard these guardrails.