Why Power Corrupts – And What To Do About It
By DR MARK LOVATT
SIR John Dalberg Acton, a British historian in 1887, once said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
History certainly bears this out: when people get into positions of power, they change – for the worse. We saw this with Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, the post-Mahatma Gandhi family in India, and a host of others.
Amongst our own friends and family you may have witnessed this first-hand: people change from normal individuals to arrogant, self-centred and greedy little Napoleons when they are given power.
It can be something as minor as becoming head of the residents committee or parent-teacher association, or as important as being appointed to a senior government position or head of a company. Why does this happen so consistently to us?
Power has an identity of its own
As human beings, power has a strange effect on us. It is intoxicating, an addictive force which is both life-enhancing and soul-destroying. Why is this? The answer is simple: we need power to live. And the more we have of it, the better life feels.
The power of money, fame, good looks, position or status, even where we live, all add to our sense of security and well-being, convincing us that we can withstand the effects of the hostile forces of the environment in which we live and look forward to the future with confidence.
That’s perfectly natural. However, power has an identity of its own. When we encounter it, it impacts and changes us. Think about how you feel when you encounter someone famous: overawed, a little nervous perhaps, or excited, or perhaps determined to play it cool, which is a reaction in itself.
We get the same feeling when stepping into a Ferrari for the first time, or attending a gala event, or if we get to handle RM1 mil in cash. Whatever happens, you can’t ignore it.
It’s not always positive though: we soon turn nasty when someone threatens the source of our well-being, and that grasping and holding on to what we want is a defining element of human behaviour, starting when we are small children and going on from there.
Strength of character
In fact, we know that power has its own characteristics: anybody who works in power generation or electrical engineering will know that it has very specific qualities which must be managed and controlled for it to become a useful product rather than a destructive force.
One of my favourite films is The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. The whole story is built around the ring that Bilbo Baggins holds in his possession, which he passes to his adopted nephew Frodo.
The ring is an allegory for power: corrupting those like Gollum who find it but are not prepared for its effects. Fortunately Gandalf has the wisdom to know how to handle it and sees in Frodo the humility and strength of character to carry the ring to its ultimate destruction.
Even Frodo becomes corrupted towards the end, but fate intervenes and Gollum takes it from him and in doing so falls to his death, carrying the ring with him to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.
LOTR tells us exactly what power can do to people. Witness the response of Boromir at the end of the first film when he sees the ring and tries to take it himself, with catastrophic results.
What is the best response to this? Strength of character clearly has a role to play: humility, honesty and determination to act with justice form effective safeguards in an individual against the corrosive effects of unbridled power.
Powers to create and powers to destroy
When people of strong integrity take a position of high office, they understand that their role is to put to work the power that has been entrusted to them for the well-being of those around them and by whose faith they have been appointed. This may be a president, a chief executive officer (CEO), government minister or even military commander.
Where such people are in charge, there is potential for good as the power they hold is put to use to bring positive changes to our world through the entities over which they have control.
However, the opposite can also happen. When people who lack the moral strength needed to put power to work for the general good are placed in key positions, the results can be hugely destructive.
In the corporate world, the collapse of Enron Corporation serves as a salutary lesson as to what would happen when the dark side of human nature is freed, the controls are whittled down to nothing, and pride and greed have a free rein.
Friedrich Nietzsche called this element of human nature the “will to power”, something dangerous in human nature that shapes our identity and history.
The reality is that when this “will to power” is left unchecked, corruption is the inevitable result. We have seen this across the developing world, for example in the Philippines in the 1970s under Ferdinand Marcos, Zimbabwe in the 2000s under Robert Mugabe, and Russia pretty well throughout its history.
No nation is free of corruption: witness the ugliness of the presidential race this year in the United States when great power is at stake. However, some countries have more advanced and effective systems for dealing with it than others.
The impact can be severe. When people dominated by hunger for power take key positions in government and business, we see the tendering and procurement systems distorted to favour cronies and family members; dismantling of financial controls resulting in embezzlement and fraud; unqualified people appointed to key positions on the basis of relationship rather than competency; and all the other problems we are so familiar with.
This is often done by people who might well have led honest and honourable lives if they were kept out of positions of influence, but the effects of power were too much for them. Like an electrical system after a power surge, they are left with their moral character burnt away and their own souls blackened by the injustices they have perpetrated.
How can organisations protect themselves?
For any company to operate, power must be placed in the hands of decision-makers for them to do their job and grow the business. The greater the level of governance, the more restrictions the executive has to work with, inhibiting their creativity and productivity and tying them up in bureaucratic red tape.
On the other hand, working without rules inevitably results in the ascendancy of the “will to power”, with fraud, embezzlement, exploitation and all the other evils that come with corruption taking over the company. So how do we deal with this?
Two factors make the difference:
1. We need to recruit, empower and promote people on the basis of their character as well as their competence.
Warren Buffett is famous for saying, “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”
Integrity is clearly critical for people in positions of power. So developing the right assessment techniques to identify people with a strong commitment to moral principles such as honesty, truth and justice is a key step for organisations to take in ensuring they are promoting the right people.
Interestingly, studies have shown that a person’s character and values are pretty well set by the age of seven. This means that people of working age who already have a tendency to lie, cheat and steal are unlikely to change, so ensuring that these people are identified and screened out of the promotional system helps keep the company in good shape.
2. Ensure we have the right systems of guidance and accountability in our organisations.
Left to their own devices, even those with strong values can be corrupted if the company’s stance is not clear and the temptation is big enough. Hence, having the mechanisms to ensure that wrong behaviour can be prevented, identified and dealt with at any level are crucial to ensure that even when temptation comes along the right decisions are made.
Here are a few measures that can build strength into the organisation and ensure its well-being is properly safeguarded:
- have clear rules, especially on risk areas such as gifts and hospitality
- set up internal reporting systems (including whistleblowing) so the people who are breaking the rules can be identified and dealt with quickly
- adopt robust disciplinary procedures so that wrong-doers can be ejected from the organisation
- have a water-tight (and interference-proof) tendering & procurement system; and making sure both your own people and the external parties they deal with know the rules.
The fact is that leaders throughout history have been prone to corruption. There is no reason to think it will change much in our lifetime, so the best approach is to ensure that our institutions, governance structures, policies and procedures, and enforcement are strong enough to deal with this perpetual challenge.
When this is done well, all that energy, creativity – and yes, power – are put to work for the benefit of our organisations, our families and our societies, we’ll all be the better for it.
This article was originally published by Leaderonomics, a social enterprise with the purpose of transforming nations through leadership development. To read more about leadership articles, visit www.leaderonomics.com