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How (and Why) Power Corrupts People

Here’s why powerful people think they are above the law.

Key points

  • Powerful individuals have access to resources and privileges that ordinary people don't.
  • Power can alter self-perception, leading to feelings of exceptionality and reduced empathy.
  • Power doesn't inherently lead to corruption since the key difference lies in motivation.

We've all heard the adage, "power corrupts" (and the longer version, "absolute power corrupts absolutely."). We most commonly associate power and corruption with leaders—those in powerful leadership positions who take advantage, subjugate others, take far more than their share of resources, and selfishly strive for more and more power and control.

In a world full of dictators and "strong man" leaders, we can easily see the damage a powerful, despotic leader can inflict. Yet, once attained, power can infect anyone and lead to corruption and bad behavior. Why is the power associated with corruption?

With Power Comes Privilege

Powerful people have plentiful resources that can be used to their benefit. This allows the powerful to achieve or experience things that evade less powerful people. They get special treatment. It can also lead to corruption because powerful people can "buy themselves out" of trouble. In our two-tier system of justice, powerful individuals can hire the best lawyers, bail themselves out of trouble financially, and simply throw money at the problem to make it go away.

People with power can also threaten and intimidate ("Don't you know who I am?"). Less powerful people will often back down when confronted. Or, they align themselves with the powerful person and benefit from association—becoming powerful (and potentially corrupt) themselves.

Power Can Change Self-Perceptions

Philosopher Terry Price suggests that powerful individuals can engage in "exception-making"—believing that the rules and laws that apply to others do not apply to them. This can be an easy source of corruption. There is also evidence that the more people possess power, the more they focus on their egocentric desires and the less able they are to see others' perspectives. This is particularly problematic for individuals in positions of power and authority who may exploit the people they are in charge of.

Using Power for Good

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 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.

The best antidote to power and corruption is humility. It is important that leaders and others with power have the humility to evaluate their behavior objectively. They need to realize that their power is given to them, that it can be fleeting, and it is the obligation of those close to the leader—the inner circle—to hold a mirror up to the leader's actions and to hold the leader accountable.

Powerful people and leaders need to understand that their obligation is to use that power wisely and to benefit others. Not to abuse it and certainly not use it to justify their illegal or immoral behavior that harms others.


Price, T.L. (2008). Understanding ethical failures in leadership. Cambridge University Press.

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