Power attracts the wrong kind of people

Brian Klaas, researcher in London and columnist at the Washington Post, has written a book that is very relevant to the times in which we live. The book is called “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.” It deals with questions such as: Why is it that bad people so often end up in positions of power? How can we ensure that the right good people end up in positions of power? and Does power corrupt or are people with corrupt tendencies just more likely to end up in positions of power?

Many examples of corrupt leaders

The examples of people in positions of power doing all sorts of bad things are not hard to find. After years of watching Donald Trump lie and make his way through the presidency of the US with all kinds of malpractices, we now have to watch Vladimir Putin violate international law and sow death and destruction in his neighboring country.

Power corrupts

For his book, Klaas conducted interviews with more than 500 leaders. Among those leaders were not only noble people but also bad ones, cult leaders and dictators. Klaas explains that power can certainly corrupt. In a position of power you have the opportunity to benefit yourself and as the saying goes, opportunity makes the thief.
Moreover, many people in positions of power find themselves in the situation that the people around them mostly talk to them, which may lead them to believe more and more in their own right and take their privileges for granted.
To counteract the corrupting potential of power, it is essential that counter-power is organized. Wise leaders organize them themselves. But we should not rely in advance on the wisdom of the leader and, as a society, ensure that leaders have countervailing power. It is also wise to establish in advance that leadership is always temporary.

Power-hungry people end up in positions of power

In addition to corrupting power, power also attracts the wrong types. Power-hungry people like to volunteer for positions of power. People with certain personality profiles are particularly good at gaining power and at the same time dangerous in positions of power. The types Klaas describes are people with so-called dark-triad personalities. These are people who have three types of tendencies at the same time: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The fact that these people not only often seek power but also succeed in acquiring power has two main reasons.
The first is that these people are often very good at manipulating people. They can often appear charming when necessary and lie and cheat outright to get their way. 
The second reason, according to Klaas, has to do with an evolutionarily ingrained tendency of people. That tendency is to think that powerful, aggressive men are good leaders in tense situations. Klaas explains that this may indeed have been an important advantage for leaders in prehistoric times, for example during a hunt or during a tribal war. Today, physical strength, dominance and aggression is not an advantage, rather a disadvantage. But our brains evolve slowly and intuitively we often still think that people with strong masculine traits are the best leaders.

Paradoxical conclusion 

A paradoxical conclusion Klaas draws is that those who are most eager to take on leadership positions should be distrusted. They are possibly the most dysfunctional leaders. Perhaps we should mainly ask people for leadership positions who are not eager to do so at first.


Coert Visser said…
Link to study

► This meta-analysis of 92 independent samples looked at how psychopathic traits relate to being a leader, being a good leader, and being a leader who inspires change. They found that people with psychopathic traits are slightly more likely to become leaders, but are not very effective or inspiring. Men with these traits show a small link to being leaders and somewhat effective, while women with these traits are not as effective or inspiring. Overall, the worry about psychopathic traits in leaders might be too much, but the effects can be different for men and women.
Stijn van Willigen said…
Very well and clearly written article, Coert. Thanks for linking to the meta-analysis.

Would you say that a major contributor to these Dark Triad personality types developing in these people is thwarting of SDT needs (Relatedness, Competence, Autonomy) during child upbringing? If so, could you link to supporting evidence?

Stijn van Willigen
Coert Visser said…
Dear Stijn,
I'm glad you found the article valuable and thank you for your insightful question.
The Self-Determination Theory (SDT), as you mentioned, highlights the three universal psychological basic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These are indeed very important for healthy psychological and personality development during childhood. Thwarting or neglect of these needs can potentially lead to a myriad of psychological issues, including maladaptive personality traits.
When it comes to the Dark Triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), I am nota ware of studies a link between the thwarting of basic needs and the development of Dark Triad traits. It might, however, play a role. Having said that, other factors may be involved too. Have done a google scholar search. Perhaps you might find something. If you do, I’d be interested to learn more.
Kind regards,