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Power Corrupts?

June 27, 2013

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Power corrupts, right? That’s what we’ve been taught, anyway. History is chock full of people seemingly corrupted by their power. Need I name names? Art too, it would seem, imitates life. It’s been a popular literary theme in books and movies since, well, since books and movies came into existence.

So than I guess we can all agree that this is a prime example of a generalization being accurate? Sure, the validating evidence of this age old axiom is so profound that we need not consider it too deeply and we can safely add this one to our tool belt of cultural truisms and pull it out from time to time when we need to explain the misdeeds of a leader. Let’s move on.

Oh wait, just for fun, let’s consider the counterpoint. I suppose to disprove this we would have to identify a person or persons (because a singular outlier is almost always to be expected) of great power that was not corrupted. Hmm. Anyone, anyone?

Gandhi. Ok.

Washington. Sure. Pretty much all U.S. Presidents. Alright.

Augustus, Constantine, Mandela, The Dalai Lama, Churchill, Frederick II. Wait, ok. Names are flooding my consciousness.

I guess the old cliché is crap after all. Still, there is no disputing the fact that many people seemingly have been corrupted by their power. So what gives?

In a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers concluded that power gives people the means to more fully express their moral identity. Sometimes, as I think Gandhi’s example illustrates, that leads a person to become a force for good, while in others it facilitates their debasement and decent into behavior that can be described as corrupt. Seems the propensity to be corrupted by power is something that people carry with them. For these people, a conscious or unconscious desire to misbehave and abuse may be the driving force behind the quest for power just as a desire to do good motivates people like Gandhi.

This conclusion, if correct, has powerful implications both good and bad. On the positive side, we need not fear that all powerful people will seek to take advantage and we also need not fear acquiring some power, or authority, for ourselves. If you have good intentions while powerless, it stands that you will be unlikely to be transformed into a Stalinist when you get that first managerial gig. On the less than positive side, it also means that dictators-at-heart walk among us just waiting to seize enough authority to do some real damage.

In the spirit of this dialogue, I thought it would be fun to present some top 3 lists. Thursday is The Working Dead Page of Infamy day so I will share with you all the 3 leaders with whom I have worked who flew the fiercest, corrupt moral identity, freak flags. As part of your quest to become Renaissanced I will also share the top 3 literary characters who most embody what we now know was disposition toward corruption. Finally, it wouldn’t be Boss of the Living Dead if I didn’t also share the 3 most corrupt villains of the post zombie apocalypse genre.

In a very particular order, I respectfully submit the following:

Top 3 Corrupted Literary Characters (non-PZA category):

  1. Macbeth – Regicide, murderous reign of terror, witchcraft, kilts. Macbeth is the real deal.
  2. Napoleon – The top pig from Animal Farm. He perverts the efforts of the farm animals to establish a fair and just society in order to deify himself.
  3. Jack – In Lord of the Flies he makes it ever so easy to hate a child. A megalomaniacal, violent, sociopathic child, that is.

Honorable Mention: Sméagol/Gollum – Plenty corrupt, but damn it’s hard to blame him. That ring…

Top 3 Corrupted Literary Characters (Zombie category):

  1. Alexia Ashford – Hard to compete with the scope of corruption seen in Resident Evil. She even one ups Macbeth by committing patricide (or something close to it).
  2. The Governor – Yeah, no question I am a homer for The Walking Dead. No denying his evil insanity. He brings the goods.
  3. General Grigio – Named after the worst grape varietal, the guy is a drunk who bans booze. Enough said, check out Warm Bodies.

Top 3 Corrupted Business Leaders I have known (The Working Dead Page of Infamy Inductees for today):

  1. Sammy L – I worked for this guy early in my retail career. He worked his teenage and elderly employees like it was an Albertsons. Required people to work off the clock, on their days off. Vain, arrogant, and without an ounce of sympathy. A tyrant in gabardine and Nu-process shoes.
  2. Franco – A colleague who was proud to talk about how he pitted employees against one another. He curried their friendship while creating conflict between them. His theory was that employees should be loyal to only him and should compete for his favor.
  3. Heather – I inherited her as a sales manager on my team. I was on the job less than a week when employees began to complain about not getting paid for the work they did… at Heather’s house! Yes, unbelievably, she had them providing childcare, home and lawn maintenance with the (unfulfilled) promise that she would enter hours worked for her on the company payroll! When I terminated her she went berserk and I, for the only time, considered calling the police to protect myself and the staff.

We, all of us, are part of countless leadership/authority/relationships. Individually, we impact those relationships just as they impact us. As leaders in business, it is incumbent upon you to understand the nature of authority, power and leadership. It is your craft. It is part of each of our cultural identities and for those of us who are determined to lead others, it is your art as well as your science.

Listen to the estimable John Malkovich talk about his General Grigio character in Warm Bodies. Yeah, John Malkovich is in it!

One Comment
  1. Very useful info. Hope to see more posts soon!

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