Many are familiar with Lord Acton’s adage on power, penned in a letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
Power Tends to Corrupt
Why is power dangerous? As the observation goes, most of us tend to abuse it, but power can also abuse us. Recent studies suggest that when individuals obtain power—especially in concentrated amounts as is common to CEOs, managers, politicians, and celebrities—they experience brain damage. Their ability to empathize, to get inside the experience of another person, becomes severely stunted. They lose the ability to read other people. In other words, their emotional intelligence regresses or fails to robustly develop.
Wielding power responsibly is a difficult challenge. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” We see this play out as a central theme in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as even noble persons struggle to resist the temptations and sins that routinely attend power.
All of this buttresses the view that power, once obtained, will destroy us personally and/or do damage to those around us. It implies a certain kind of determinism that can’t be escaped; if given power, you will become a less ethical, humane, or virtuous version of yourself.
The Corruptible Tend Toward Power
Alternatively, others argue that power tends to attract the unprincipled or morally weak, as scientist David Brin notes: “It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.”
The real problem resides with what we ultimately choose to pursue. Power isn’t good or bad in and of itself, but rather operates as a tool, magnifying our virtues (or shortcomings), enabling us to better achieve our self-determined goals. For example, if I’m a community member looking to organize an art festival to unify my city, enlarging my power (or sphere of influence) by connecting with notable artists in the neighborhood is likely to result in a more successful art festival. By keeping my higher purpose (unifying my city) in the forefront of my mind, I’m far less likely to let my heightened position in the community lead me down ethically-suspect side streets and dark alleys.
It’s when we fixate our efforts on taking hold of power that we lose our way. Or, as George Orwell warns, “The object of power is power.” Our lack of vision or transcendent purpose crowds out space for the meaningful activities that bring about greater success.
Influence Must Be Guided by Higher Purpose
What is power? In the more positive view, to have power means to hold influence or maintain the ability to do something, to act or change the world (internally or externally). If we want to improve our relationships, communities, or team cultures, we need influence to do it.
In this framing, power is a secondary goal. It plays a supporting role in enabling us to better achieve our primary aims—the things that connect us to a higher purpose, such as solving existential problems, finding a cure for cancer, alleviating poverty, helping people transport goods sustainably, or a plethora of things that organizations do to add value to the lives of others.
Utilizing power responsibly (or seeking it ethically) is foundational to managing effective teams.
In her book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night (2013), Nicole Lipkin outlines seven types of power. By recognizing these variants, their downsides and upsides, we can understand how to more purposefully manage for performance.
- Legitimate: cases where an individual higher up in the structural hierarchy employs control over those in lower positions of authority. This can also been seen as institutional jurisdiction. When an individual proves themselves deserving of this weight, it can be an effective source for “making things happen.” However, when a manager is perceived as undeserving of their clout or having violated commonly understood cultural values, then an organization or team can become toxic. This negativity breeds distrust and inefficiencies.
- Coercive: instances where a person resorts to threats or force when directing others. This type of dominance is to be avoided. It corrodes mutual respect, fosters resentment and fear, and erases any genuine loyalty that may have existed before. Ruling by fear is a losing strategy.
- Expert: leadership that stems from demonstrated ability or perceived competence. Another way to understand this is respect. While trust is about whether we feel emotionally safe with or loyal to a person, respect pertains to how much we admire or value a person’s skill set (be they task-oriented or people-oriented abilities). Preserving this form of influence requires that a person continually refine their talents and seek learning opportunities.
- Informational: exists where an individual holds coveted or necessary information. Think of the coworker that is the only person who knows the password to the email marketing software, and everybody has to go to them to access it. This type of control grants the person short-term abilities that others lack but it does little to endear team members to them. It offers little potential for genuine influence or change. People who routinely use this control tactic incite frustration between them and their team members and minimize their opportunities for stepping into roles of greater influence.
- Reward: relates to those who can offer other people tangible things they might want, like promotions, public praise, awards, and raises. While often accompanied by legitimate power, this ability enables a manager to motivate team members. It’s dangling a carrot in front of others (whereas Coercive Power is more like rule by the stick)—push versus pull.
- Connection: highlights the benefits that come from holding social ties or friendships with people of influence. If an individual has familiarity with “decision makers” they are going to be opportune to sources of power by proxy. Sure, this reinforces the importance of networking, but it reminds us that fostering relationships with coworkers and members of the wider community can translate into a greater ability to bring about change. Nepotism (and cronyism) rears its ugly head when special “rewards” or preferential treatment is handed out to people that are deemed “undeserving” by others.
- Referent: often tied to an individual’s charisma or personality, the heart of this ability includes people skills and interpersonal communication. Managers with this capability know how to invite admiration, respect, and loyalty from their team members. Of all the types of power, this is the one most aligned with our common views of leadership and influence. It stands in contrast to the command and control style so endemic to authoritarian organizations. It’s potentially available to anyone, so long as they as willing to do the emotional and psychological work it takes to become an emotionally intelligent leader. It’s the difference between persuasion and force, invitations and mandates, showing and telling.
In conclusion, we ought to be wary of power, or at least be certain our desire for greater influence is connected to a higher purpose. This shields us from our darker nature. And from there we can ascertain which type of power is within our reach or most appropriate to our circumstances, ultimately resulting in us becoming better leaders—managers with more effective, thriving teams.
Jeffrey serves as Communications and Marketing Director at Effectiveness Institute. He is also Editor in Chief of Erraticus, an online publication focused on human flourishing.
He is a former mental health professional and educator living in Cascadia.