Frank Lloyd Wright is often
touted as the greatestarchitect in American history, but he is alsoremembered as a man corrupted by power. Beforehe became famous, Wright was the head draftsmanfor the renowned architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivantasked him to create drawings for the CharnleyCottage, a picturesque waterfront house inMississippi, as well as a Charnley house in Chicago.Sullivan was the designing partner, and mostexperts assumed that he was responsible for thebuildings. In 1897, Charnley Cottage burned down.“Sullivan, who had fired Wright by this time, rebuiltit in the same character,” notes architecture expertJay Pridmore, “suggesting that Sullivan regarded theoriginal design as his own.”
Four decades later, in 1932,
Wright wrote in hisautobiography that he was responsible for theCharnley work. Critics assumed that he was onlyclaiming responsibility for the drawings, not thedesigns. After another seventeen years, in 1949,Wright took credit for designing the house.Pridmore was suspicious: “Despite the propertysobvious Sullivanesque elements, Wright claimedthat design as his own.”Architecture professor Paul Sprague agreed: “Whenthe cobwebs of misunderstanding are finallycleared away, the evidence confirms Louis Sullivanas the author of the Charnley house.”
Earlier in his career, before
he achieved eminence,Wright was more generous in giving credit. Hecalled Sullivan the Master, describing himself as a“good pencil in Sullivan’s hand.” According tobiographers, Wright “repeatedly acknowledged thepositive influence that Sullivan had on his life andarchitecture.” Why did Wright end up taking creditfor the Charnley designs later on? How could he robhis mentor of at least partial credit?The natural answer is that power corrupts. Aspeople gave Wright credit for his brilliant ideas,perhaps the fame and fortune went to his head.
This may be true, but
there’s a new line of thinking inpsychology: power reveals. Rather than turning FrankLloyd Wright into a credit hog, it may well be that beingdrunk on power simply freed him up to reveal his truecolors.To illustrate, imagine that you’re escorted to an office.You sit down, and you learn that you and a partner willneed to complete ten tasks. Since your partner is runninglate, it’s up to you to pick five tasks for yourself. You get todelegate the other five tasks to your partner. Some of thetasks are very short. Others will require much more time.Will you act like a taker, claiming the short tasks foryourself and leaving your partner stuck with the longones? Or will you be a giver, doing the time-consumingwork and letting your partner off the hook?
It depends on where you’re
sitting. In a fascinatingstudy led by the psychologist Serena Chen, peoplefilled out a survey to determine whether theytended to approach interactions like givers ortakers. When they arrived for the study, they wereushered into either a powerful or powerless seat.The powerful seat was a chair behind an imposingdesk. The powerless seat was a guest chair in frontof the desk. When sitting in the powerless seat, thetakers acted like givers. They pretended to begenerous, volunteering for the time-consumingtasks and leaving the short tasks for their partners.In daily life, this is a strategy that takers use forimpressing those above them, in the interest ofgaining authority and influence.
When they were sitting in
the powerful seat, the takersrevealed their true colors. They grabbed the shortesttasks, sticking the givers with the lion’s share of the work.Power frees us from the chains of conformity. As a teamof psychologists led by Adam Galinsky finds, “powerpsychologically protects people from influence.” Becausepowerful people have plenty of resources, they don’tneed to worry as much about the negative consequencesof expressing their values. For givers, power is associatedwith responsibility to others. This means that poweroften grants givers the latitude to help others withoutworrying about exploitation by takers or sheerexhaustion. For takers, on the other hand, power is alicense to advance their own interests.
Frank Lloyd Wright may have
had taker tendenciesall along, which were amplified as he gained power.Early on, these leanings were visible in hisrelationship with his son John, whom he refused topay a regular salary for his work. When John asked,Wright presented him with a list of the totalamount of money that John had cost him over hisentire life. When John deducted a reasonable salaryfrom a commission, Wright fired him.As Wright gained power, he had fewer reasons tokiss up and more opportunities to kick down. Hebegan insisting that his apprentices list him as headarchitect on all documents, regardless of his role. Bythe time he reached the pinnacle of
the architectural ladder, he felt
entitled to claim solecredit for collaborative work. Sprague suggests thatWright “wanted the world to believe that his first maturestyle did not have its origins in Sullivan’s work.”Perhaps gaining power doesn’t cause people to act liketakers. It simply creates the opportunity for people whothink like takers to express themselves.“Nothing discloses real character like the use of power,”wrote Robert Green Ingersoll, reflecting on the legacy ofAbraham Lincoln. “Most people can bear adversity. But ifyou wish to know what a man really is, give him power.”
For more on givers, takers,
and power,see Adams new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright. Credit: Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images