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The Force That Corrupts Leaders (and Others)

What is the force that makes even good people turn bad?

When we think about greed, jealousy, corruption, and a multitude of other vices, there is one process underlying all of these. What is it?

This corruptible force is power. We’ve all heard the saying “power corrupts,” or the longer version, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Is there any truth to it? Yes, power can corrupt, but, of course, it does not always do so.

Philosophers and psychologists have studied the process by which power can become intoxicating and cause people to misbehave. Philosopher Terry Price has suggested that as leaders gain more power and control, and have dedicated followers willing to obey their every command, these powerful leaders begin to think that they are special. They begin to think that they are above the rules—that the laws and social rules do not apply to the powerful leader, in a process Price calls “exception-making.”

Does an individual’s or a leader’s power have to be a corrupting force and lead to bad behavior? No. One way to distinguish between power that corrupts and power that is used for positive ends is the difference between what leadership scholars call “personalized” versus “socialized” power. Personalized power is used for personal gains, while socialized power is used to benefit others.

Leaders can indeed become “intoxicated” by power—engaging in wrong, immoral, or illegal behavior simply because they can get away with it (followers will often cover up for the leader’s misdeeds). Witness the law and rule breaking (and sexual affairs) of politicians and other high level leaders.

So, power can be either negative or positive. On the negative side, the more power individuals possess, the more likely they may be to satisfy their own egocentric needs and desires (think of celebrities), and the less able they are to see others’ perspectives.

On the positive side, power helps leaders have the confidence and courage to take action and power is used to “make things happen. The key is to use power for positive outcomes, and avoid the corruptible forces of power.

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