Does power corrupt or are you already corrupt when you get there?
It’s kind of like, “the chicken or the egg” analogy, which came first? Now I don’t know about chickens or eggs, and what came first, but I have formed some conclusions about the use of POWER.
My belief, which grows out of better than 40 years of working experience both in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, and coupled with my work as a Life & Business Coach, my educational background and finally, my own numerous first hand experiences with those who abuse power for personal gain, is that you are already corrupt when you get to a position of power or at the very least are pre-disposed to being that way.
Corrupt: immoral or dishonest, especially as shown by the exploitation of a position of power or trust for personal gain.
Is this an absolute answer? No, it is not because there are those rare exceptions, and I do mean rare, when sometimes individuals are truly there for altruistic reasons! Call me a cynic or call me a realist. Take you pick.
Leadership and Power
There are many definitions of power but one that resonates here is: direct or indirect control and/or influence over other people and their actions. This is actually a partial definition for a leadership position.
Note: It is important to understand that holding a leadership position and being a leader are two very different things.
True leadership should be seen as a special privilege that is given to a person for the advancement of a worthy cause. But unfortunately, due to the sometimes narcissistic nature (excessive self-admiration and self-centeredness) of man and the ever increasing narcissistic leanings of our culture, many today seek out leadership positions for what the power brings in the form of control, prestige, fame, money and just plain greed. Each of these so called pursuits is self-serving. In the end, it produces empty, sometimes dangerous individuals in positions of power, and at the very least, frustrated, oftentimes desperate people who come under that influence.
As an aside, and as abhorrent and distasteful as this sounds, I wonder how many of the mass shootings in the United States are an outgrowth of this desperation or perhaps, even one’s desire for power.
Types of Power
The type of power that is exerted determines the outcome of one’s actions and ultimately defines a so-called leader’s legacy.
If you do an internet search of types of power, you will find several long lists of various types. For our purposes here, let’s use three main types of power that those in leadership positions use today to motivate or manipulate people to follow them or their cause:
1. Coercive Power – This type of power is created by a person who uses manipulation to present a scenario that puts their followers in a worrisome state. It puts fear in the follower that either something bad might happen to them or something good might be taken from them if they don’t submit themselves to the person in the position of power and his/her ways. This can take place in a marriage, from a parent, a teacher, a boss, and yes… even a pastor!
2. Utility Power – This type of power is created by a person who uses his/her power to draw people to them with a legitimate ‘carrot’ or reward attached. People become motivated by the perceived benefit. Therefore the reason for pursuing this powerful person’s objective is now self-serving in the life of the follower. This type of relationship has an exchange of ‘goods and services’ between different parties. This is a large part of the leadership world today, and in some ways, it is not all together bad. But as in the first type of power, it is driven by self-motivating factors and not necessarily the overall good of the organization or cause.
3. Authentic Power – This type of power is rare, yet is the most fruitful. This power is used to motivate all involved to believe in the cause and its purpose with the willingness to forsake all selfish motives for service. A leader that is able to push aside his/her own desires and agendas will truly inspire their followers to give their time, talent and treasures to fulfill a greater cause larger than them. This is a leader worth following.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lincoln
Speaking of character, in my work as a Life & Business Coach, a key area of exploration with all of my clients is their core values. This is accomplished in part, by the completion of a personal values assessment tool. Based upon its outcome, one is measured inside five personal value systems. The clients’ weighted scores in each system determine where they place the most weight or emphasis in their lives. The five value systems are:
People who posses a high degree of aesthetic value seek beauty, symmetry, and harmony. They are interested in the artistic episodes of life.
The social or humanitarian value indicates love of fellow beings.
Theoretical people, value truth and knowledge above all else.
Practicality and usefulness are important to the economic person.
The political value is characterized by the pursuit of power. People at the top levels of any organization probably were led there by their desire for power. People with a high power motive seek influence, personal prestige, control, authority, strength, and the other trappings of power described by the words on the assessment. The political person recognizes the relationship between money and power and may measure success in dollars; however, the ultimate goal is position. This type of person joins clubs with the ultimate goal of becoming the presiding officer, works for advancement and promotion opportunities, and also desires social status and recognition.
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”
José Ortega y Gasset
Where Does the Political Value Come From?
The degree to which one holds a particular value system and its associated behaviours can be traced back to one’s first family experiences. Our early life experiences, the lessons learned and how we were made to feel about ourselves within and around the family, are the main contributors to our initiation into the world. As adults, it then becomes our responsibility to choose the path we will follow. But make no mistake – those early life influences can dramatically colour the choices we make later in life.
Underlying the behavoiur of large cross-sections of people who possess the political value and who hold positions of power more than any other, is a basic insecurity, a feeling which if expressed shows little self-acceptance (except in authentic leaders). This is reflected in a negative view of the self and a feeling that others have a negative view of one, as well, even when a person presents with a confident air and might be described as a high achiever. It is this painful unrelenting feeling of inadequacy that provides the motivation to continually strive for as much power and control as possible in an effort to authenticate one’s self.
Unfortunately, until these people deal with the root cause(s) of these feelings, persons who hold the political value above all other value systems will not find peace.