Does Power Corrupt?

· Etiquetas: , , Leadership

The great battles of life are still waged within us. Combining intelligence and goodness in leadership, in public and private governance, is a revolution lying in wait that could determine the prosperity of nations.

The use of power is one piece of ammunition that every executive must know how to leverage in order to advance their goals. As a general rule, it’s better to rely more on influence (the ability to move people to action) and less on authority (the right to make certain decisions). The intentions and nature of the levers by which power is exercised will either dignify or corrupt executives.

We know from history that an important faction of human institutions ends up falling out of favor due to the lack of virtues of their leaders. Societies fall victim to the hijacking of their entities by the so-called extractive elites.

The extractive elites are the leaders who use these entities to benefit themselves (or their cronies) without regard for the common good. These people, in turn, create extractive institutions, whose power is held by individuals lacking in scruples and empathy. Many of them turn out to be sociopaths with (surprise, surprise…) a good image. The explanation, in the words of Machiavelli: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” Appearing to be something we are not is a lie. And we all know who the father of lies is…

These groups, whose actions are self-seeking, not only fail to generate wealth; they actually end up developing parasitic relationships with the rest of society. The extractive elites are found in both the public realm (political parties, unions, judiciary, police, etc.) and the private realm (finance, companies, media, leisure, etc.). They are multi-sector—and a product of the struggle between good and evil that we wage within ourselves.

It’s a struggle where numerous short-term incentives contribute to us choosing the wrong side. This well-known quote from Lord Acton epitomizes that process: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only exception is in the case of people with deep-rooted inner virtues.

One of the favorite pastimes of extractive elites is the monetization of their power through corruption, a practice that requires four actors: politicians, executives or officials (1), who traffic their influence in companies or public administrations (2), who pay inflated prices or give favorable conditions to contractors (3), who pay commissions to those politicians, officials and managers, who with the help of lawyers and bankers (4) hide and launder criminal money. There are too many protagonists in this tragedy of society.

The harmful effects of the misuse of power cause a pathology with well-known symptoms: indifference to what others think; coldness toward others’ feelings; loss of the sense of risk or of proportion in the type of priorities that govern the institution, instrumentalization of citizens to achieve their own ends; tendency to surround oneself with characters who are not intellectually and economically independent; simplistic, stereotyped judgment of individuals and events; overrating one’s image and personal abilities; inappropriate behaviors, such as public and private humiliation, excesses with food, drink, sex, drugs, etc.

There is an alternative to the parasitic and corrupt elite. It is called leading for the common good; becoming a symbiotic elite, made up of people with strong convictions and virtues. Their weapons are the sum of values, the sense of right and wrong, the willingness to say “no” to instant gratifications of a dysfunctional nature and the ability to engender collaborative relationships based on trust, reciprocity and mutual respect.

A leader with virtues places barriers on the use of power, does not resort to unethical levers, cares about the common good and thus avoids the “slippery slope” effect, on him or herself and on society as a whole, which Montesquieu described: “It is an eternal experience that every man who has power is apt to abuse it; he goes to the point at which he encounters limits.”