Does Power Corrupt Leaders?

We’ve all heard the proverb: “Power  corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But does it?

According to a new study, it’s not power that corrupts, but a person’s “moral identity.”  What researches found was that when people see morality as part of who they are (strong moral identity), they use that power to benefit an organization or a group and not to benefit themselves.  People who don’t see themselves in moral terms (weak moral identity), are more likely to make choices that benefit themselves and not the group.

Despite what conventional wisdom says, power doesn’t make us good or bad, instead it comes down to how we see ourselves.

This is why some people, who on the surface appear to be “good” people, end up succumbing to the temptations of power.  It’s why extraordinarily talented people like Bernie Madoff can be described as friends and family as a “good guy” and then use power to completely ruin other people’s lives while benefiting himself.

In other words, this isn’t just a matter of bad people are bad, and therefore do bad things. Instead, we should take a page from Spider-Man and recognize that with great power, comes great responsibility.  The real lesson from this study is that having power intensifies how we see ourselves.  If we believe morality matters to who we are, then power intensifies that feeling.  If we don’t define ourselves in terms of morality (but say through accomplishments or recognition), then power reduces our awareness of the moral impact of our choices.

Which brings us back to what always seems to matter: it matters who you hire.  If you hire a bunch of terrible people, you can expect a bunch of terrible things.  That’s obvious.  But hiring matters on a more subtle level.  If you hire people who are most interested in promotions, wealth, or recognition (none of which are bad on their own) people will use power to achieve those ends.  Without a grounding in morality, power does in fact tend to corrupt.  Just as Lord Acton said 150 years ago.

So before giving the Gauntlet of Ultimate Power to your friend, you might want to ask if she’s got a strong or weak moral identity.

Photo Credit: Alan Clever

About Eric Barrett

Eric Barrett is an organizational psychologist who specializes in connecting the dots of work, life, and meaning. He has worked as an organizational psychologist for over a decade, and is most recently working on developing social media guidelines for a real estate company. He also teaches psychology at Xavier University. In his spare time he… wait, who are we kidding… he has no spare time. You can follow him on Twitter @MeaningToWork or his blog at Meaning to Work.