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 leadersThe 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 corruptsFor 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 powerIn 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.
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.