Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
This aphorism, expressed by the 19th century historian Lord Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, is familiar . . . perhaps too familiar. “Yeah, yeah, I know, power corrupts,” we might say, “but it won’t corrupt me.”
Lord Acton’s perspective, however, is still more pessimistic than even this familiar quote indicates. He went on to write, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
The “certainty of corruption by authority.” The guarantee that, if one is empowered to rule over others, one will be or will become corrupt.
And that bit about “great men” . . . given the complete quotation, it appears Lord Acton believed that the nature of greatness (in most senses, at least) is to make one bad.
Lord Acton’s insights grew out of life experience and lifelong study of history and morality. He moved freely in elite circles where prominent people wielded their influence with selfish abandon. In the British Parliament, he became intimately familiar with noble and corrupt uses of political power. And through history, he saw the terrors of absolute power, whether wielded by the one, the few, or the many.
What Lord Acton did not know is that his insight about the corrupting power of power would one day be borne out by laboratory experimentation.
In Professor Dacher Keltner’s “Cookie Monster” experiment, for example, three individuals are brought together randomly to complete a task. Equally randomly, one of them is designated as the team leader. Then the group sets to work.
After a while, a plate of freshly baked cookies is brought to the team. There are four cookies on the plate, one more than the number of team members.
Guess who eats the extra cookie?
The randomly assigned leader is much more likely than the other two team members to claim the cookie as his/her own. Especially if the leader is male.
Even a little bit of power, even a totally unmerited little bit of power, corrupts.
One response to the corrupting effect of power is to shun power. Rather than become corrupted, we can set our sights on more modest aspirations, tame our ambition, and eschew titles and offices . . . and even influence.
Which would leave those titles and offices . . . and influence . . . to men and women who are not troubled by becoming corrupt.
Not a good option.
The alternative Dr. Keltner proposes is simple to summarize, though it takes a lifetime to achieve.
Abuse of power often originates inadvertently through changes in one’s emotional state as one acquires power. Only by being attentive to our feelings, examining their origins, and thoughtfully choosing whether and how to act in response to them, can we stunt the growth of corruption. The more we have the courage to acknowledge our feelings and to challenge ourselves to rise above our baser instincts, the less easily we will be corrupted by power and the better we will be able to lead.
And the more likely we will be to share (or give up) that last cookie.
Whether it’s from a plate of cookies or a council meeting, there are leadership lessons to be learned wherever we look. Join Holly McPhail and me on November 9th at 2 p.m. for our webinar, Discovering Leadership, as we explore some of the inspirations behind the leadership lessons captured in my new book, More than Self. Click here to register.
And for a thoughtful exploration of public ethics beyond legal compliance, join me for The Ethical Leader: Rules and Tools at the National League of Cities City Summit in Charlotte, N.C. on Wednesday, November 15th. Click here for more information and to register.