Arrogance and overconfidence can push you past the goal you had aimed for and by going too far, you make more enemies than you defeat—Robert Greene.
Power can be dangerously seductive and deceptive. To see the symptoms, we just have to look at the body language and actions of people who wield tremendous power and control. Power can breed arrogance and blind people into believing that they are invincible. Spell of consecutive victories reinforces this belief. They feel they can do just about anything and get away with it.
Power can also sow seeds of insecurity, making them paranoiac. They cannot bear any voice of resentment and opposition, crushing dissent with iron hand. All they care about is holding onto the power whatever the cost may be.
Seen in the historical context, such elements do run out of luck and popular support. However, they can prolong their power and influence if only they know when to stop. Otherwise, as Robert Greene in his wonderful book ‘48 Laws of Power’ rightly asserts, “History is littered with the ruins of victorious empires and the corpses of leaders who could not learn to stop.”
Greene cites the example of King Cyrus and his misadventures in 529 B.C. stemming from his overconfidence. “His many victories had gone to his head, clouding his reason. Instead of recognizing each situation as different, he thought each new war would bring the same result as the one before as long as he used the methods he knew; ruthless force and cunning.” By pushing too far, Cyrus invited his death and the ruin of the mighty Persian Empire.
Luck and circumstances always play a role in power. In fact, Greene argues good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. “Bad luck teaches valuable lessons about patience, timing and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you into the opposite lesson, making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will eventually turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared,” he writes.
Ambitious politicians often preach the need for change, but bringing drastic changes can be dangerous and may even lead to revolt. They may initially convince public, but people eventually see through the designs. Citing the art of cross-examination, Francis Wellman says many lawyers succeed in catching a witness in a serious contradiction but go on asking questions and taper off their examination until the effect upon the jury of their former advantage is lost altogether. Now imagine a politician in place of the lawyer and public in place of the jury. The consequence is obvious.
Again, history is replete with lessons of this kind. In 1520s King Henry VIII of England decided to divorce his wife to marry a younger woman, but the Catholic Church opposed him and even threatened him of excommunication. One man in Henry’s cabinet, Tomas Cromwell convinced the king that by severing ties with Rome and making himself the head of a newly formed English church, he could have his way.
Cromwell wanted a new Protestant order in England. He eyed the vast wealth the Catholic churches had accumulated over the centuries. He even ordered survey of churches and monasteries to find out the wealth he can seize in the name of the King.
To justify his actions, Cromwell circulated stories about corruption and abuse of power by English monasteries. Securing parliament’s support for breaking up the monasteries, he began to seize their holdings and to put them out of existence one by one. At the same time, he began to impose Protestantism, introducing reforms in religious rituals and punishing those who stuck to Catholicism, and who were now called heretics. On top of this, Cromwell levied high taxes for his reforms.
Some people had suffered under the immensely powerful Catholic Church, but most Britons had strong spiritual ties to Catholicism. They watched in horror as churches were demolished and their treasures were confiscated. In 1535 people revolted and even as King Henry suppressed the rebellion, he also realized the costs of Cromwell’s reforms. The king himself had never wanted to go this far- he had only wanted a divorce. He began to undo Cromwell’s reforms, reinstating Catholic rituals that had been outlawed. Cromwell had pushed it too far. His ill-conceived reforms eventually got him killed. King Henry ordered his arrest on charges of being a protestant extremist and a heretic. He was beheaded before a large cheering crowd.
Cromwell’s radical reforms were enforced in a frighteningly short span of time and evoked shock and resentment. He thought these feelings would fade in a few years, but he was wrong.
If we look around there may be quite a few Thomas Cromwells who push too hard and too far, underestimating the public reaction. They take ‘big’ decisions and sell them in the name of reforms only ending up triggering anxiety which eventually erupts consuming them. Too much cunning and force stirs up strong opposition and creates a counter-reaction. You cannot make people see the world your way. They will resist.