Does Power Corrupt?

With leadership comes power, but does power always lead to corruption?

Some cynical observers might say “yes.” However, keep in mind that power in action in any organization is what we call politics. And while sometimes politics and corruption go hand-in-glove, that’s not always the case.

Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela (to name three huge examples) obtained massive power over groups of constituents but never became corrupt and, indeed, triumphed precisely because of their incorruptible ethic.

On the flip side of the coin, we can obviously find comical extremes of corruption in politics. For instance, consider Rob Ford, the erstwhile mayor of Toronto, who’s over the top corruption made headlines all over North America in 2013. (Per the Daily Mirror: “[Ford] clung to power through a string of scandals, including his appearance in expletive ridden videos and an admission he bought illegal drugs while in office.)

The moral is this: when you put people in groups, power will surface, and politics will emerge. What’s not a given is the form and shape of that power! Negative power may show up, fostering an attitude that allows for poor behavioral boundaries and/or allows the person in charge to pursue an aggressive, self-serving agenda under the guise of the leadership role. But positive power can also emerge, leading to success not just for the leader but also for subordinates.

New research actually confirms that power is not just a negative force that brings out the worst in the people who wield it. In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, scientists learned that the way a person responds to power depends on his or her moral identity. Specifically, those people in the experiment who were naturally more generous, compassionate and fair before becoming powerful were not as likely to be corrupted by the power as people who were less generous, compassionate and fair.

The Bottom Line for Businesses

Corrupt leadership negatively impacts your culture and eventually your external reputation. Fortunately, corruption among leaders isn’t inevitable. In order to ensure that all people in leadership positions are working for the good of the company:

  • Choose the right leaders. When promoting someone to a position of power, choose candidates with strong moral character over candidates who are weak or easily manipulated. If possible, look for people who have excelled as leaders in the past.
  • Keep leaders in check. Even leaders with strong moral character may let the power go to their head if they have too much freedom. Keep your leaders accountable for all of their actions and decisions.
  • Know when to make changes. If you notice corruption among people in leadership positions, don’t allow it to continue. Depending on the specifics of the situation, you may try to help the leader resolve the issue, or you may simply remove him or her from the position.

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