Historian Baron John Acton once declared that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ In our class discussions, we have been focusing primarily on the positive aspects of power and how it can be used as a tool to advance one’s career. However, it is also imperative to recognise its dark side and its ability to corrupt even the seemingly honest.
In the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 students were assigned roles as guards and prisoners, in which the prison situation was then simulated. However, despite it being just an experiment, many guards adapted their roles beyond expectation and subjected the prisoners to psychological torture. In the end, the experiment was called off prematurely in order to stabilise the mental trauma faced by some prisoners.
The outcome of the experiment is haunting but real. When power is placed with seemingly normal and honest people (students), they have the ability to conduct extreme behaviours that even they themselves might not expect. While the experiment clearly shows the ability of power to corrupt, this point was driven even more intensely to me after returning from a recent museum trip in Belgrade.
In 1974, performance artist Marina Abramović conducted her most famous act, Rhythm 0 in Serbia, Belgrade, where she placed 72 objects on the table that the public were allowed to use in any way on her while she laid motionless. It was a horrific process showing how the acts became increasingly perverse and violent as time passed.
The table with the 72 items
The audience using various items on Marina during the 6-hour performance
Marina later claimed, “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you. I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away.”
It is certainly disturbing to see how possessing merely some power over someone with no relations whatsoever for a few hours can drive such barbaric behaviours. It is no surprise to me then why so many leaders who have much more power and influence engage in corrupt acts. From the above examples, the question which then begets us is, how does power actually corrupt people?
I believe the answer can be clearly derived from a simple distinction between two forms of power established by psychologists David McClelland and David Winter. The first form is called socialized power, which is power used to benefit others, while the other form is called personalized power, which is using power for personal gain. Importantly, these two forms of power are not mutually exclusive. A leader can use his/her power to benefit others, but can also gain personally. The problem thus arises when personalized power dominates and the leader gains at his/her followers’ expense.
However, leaders and organizations can sometimes rationalize that they are working for the greater good, but actually engage in actions that is ethically wrong. A sense of power can cause a leader to engage in what famous leadership ethicist Terry Price coins, “exception making”, where a leader believes that the rules that govern what is right and wrong does not apply to himself. This is apparent during the Watergate scandal, where despite knowing the legal implications, President Nixon still engaged in various illegal acts such as wiretapping to spy on his opponents. President Nixon could possibly see himself as someone so powerful such that he is above the rule of law.
Leaders can also become intoxicated by power, whereby they engage in corrupt behaviour because they know they can get away with it. After the same performance as mentioned above by Marina, she claimed, “After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking towards the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.” This showed that her abusers had done what they did because they knew there would be no repercussions for their actions. When given the opportunity, even the honest may be tempted to engage in deviant acts if they knew no one will find out.
Similarly, we can see how this phenomenon has proliferated in the wider context of powerful organizations globally. In South Korea, there are numerous cases of influential executives from large conglomerates, or chaebols, who have received preferential treatment from government officials. For example, former President Lee Myung-Bak had pardoned Chey Tae-Won, chairman of SK from a four-year sentence for a massive accounting fraud and pardoned the chairman of Samsung, Lee Kun-Hee, for embezzlement. The main rationale was because they were deemed too important for the country’s economy. Unfortunately, this has nonetheless served to proliferate more white-collar crimes because they know they can get away with it.
Hence, as potential future leaders with power, I believe we will all at some point be exposed to the temptation of engaging in corrupt behaviour. It is hence important to be aware of these evil nudges and to use the power that we possess responsibly.