Does power inevitably corrupt? Really?

“It’s 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. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable.”

David Brin, space scientist and science fiction author (b. 6 Oct 1950)

I came across this quote in Kavitha’s Sunshiny SA Site blog post earlier this week and found it singularly depressing. I’ve bolded the first two sentences of the quote because that’s the part of Dr. Brin’s quote that is most easily found online. The next two sentences, however, surely raise the concern we should all have about corruption to another level. This quote seems to suggest that people who enter public service with honorable intentions are limited by their honesty. Is this supposed to give us comfort that a corrupt or corruptible tyrant is actually better for us? Or that we’re doomed to end up with leaders acting like tyrants?

Please tell me this isn’t true. It is undoubtedly true that power attracts the corruptible – and the already corrupt. It would be hard to argue otherwise; we’re surrounded by enough examples of such. However, if we don’t ensure that our political processes attract honorable men and women, who seek public service and public leadership for the right reasons, who want to be part of a larger effort to make our societies better for everyone, then where is our hope?

In fact, there have been studies done that have investigated this sobering question. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology entitled “Does Power Corrupt or Enable?” found that for some people, power brings out the best in them. Katherine A. DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, and her co-authors set out to determine if the good people who become political or business leaders use their power to act for the good or if they inevitably become corrupted. The intriguing research question was: When you give good people power, are they more able than others to enact that critical moral fibre they bring to the position, to do what’s right?

The excellent news is that their findings suggest that the answer is yes. People’s sense of moral identity — the importance they attached to being fair and compassionate in their dealings and decisions — shaped their responses to how they felt about power. Power needn’t corrupt; it can actually strengthen existing ethical inclinations. Quoting from the abstract of their journal publication:

“The psychological experience of power enhances moral awareness among those with a strong moral identity, yet decreases the moral awareness among those with a weak moral identity. In turn, individuals’ moral awareness affects how they behave in relation to their self-interest.”

Nelson Mandela, a shining example of a leader with strong moral fibre. Image credit:

It strikes me that aside from finding some reassurance in these results, it behooves us all to pay careful attention. All citizens have a voice. If it appears that the political system our countries work within – systems that we have had confidence in for decades or longer – are starting to fray, we can say something about it. If unelected advisors seems to be having more power than our elected representatives, we can say something about it. If it appears that decisions are being made that give preference to those who donate more money or have more influence on those in power through positions of privilege, we can say something about it. We can insist on changes. We can insist on transparency. We can insist on governments (or corporation or organizations) that listen to its constituents (or customers and employees) and have their best interests at heart. We can vote.

And, keeping the results of this study in mind, we can look long and hard for candidates who are known for their honesty and integrity. And then work hard on their behalf to get them elected.

This isn’t a new question, that of the moral fibre of people in positions of power. Not at all.

It was Lord Acton way back in 1887 who wrote in a letter to Bishop Creighton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And yet it was Abraham Lincoln a few decades before that who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” We need to ensure we’re getting leaders with character.

By the way, that goes for women, too!

Jacinda Ardern, PM of New Zealand. A shining example of a political leader who leads with compassion while being willing to make the tough decisions. Image credit: the

This entry was posted in History and Politics, Just wondering, Leadership and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Does power inevitably corrupt? Really?

  1. She is wonderful Jacinda….we hope to have her for another term, we find out on Sunday if this is the case. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis, compassionate emotionally intelligent leadership does exist!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Fingers crossed for NZ! She and some other female leaders have shown the world that competence and compassion can go hand in hand!

      • Yes she is well loved here by many people, mostly young people and most women love her….she is not very well liked by people who have a lot of money, that’s because she wants to introduce taxes on the sale of real estate, so this is not popular for some people with property. Most wealth is tied up in property rather than businesses here, it is a strange place, with some people who have a lot of wealth but zero cash to put into the economy. Nevertheless we will all find out whether or not she gets in for 4 more years on Sunday. Hoping and praying she does.

  2. I will say I’m a big fan of Jacinda’s!

  3. Love the quote and I agree power attracts the corruptible, the sane are usually attracted by other things than power. Strikes me that as you watch politicians from whichever country they’re all one and the same animal, no I’ll go further the similar character traits displayed are quite unnerving! They’re often not very intelligent, enjoy being in the limelight, ego driven and get off on ‘busy bodying’ in other people’s lives, and yes they ARE all easily corruptible whether that be money scandals, or abuse of power……….hell, what makes someone wake up one day and say ‘I want to be a politician’?……….. most of us couldn’t think of a worse job.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. Well, I have to agree, A.S., that there is plenty of evidence to back up both the quote and your agreement with it. And I can imagine how many situations there are in which even the honorable politician is going to find it difficult not to compromise his or her principles. And there are certainly politicians everywhere who have entered politics for self-serving reasons. But in Canada at least, we definitely have people who go into politics for the right reasons. Given the vicious atmosphere by times, I can’t imagine how they persevere, but I’m sure glad they do!

  4. barryh says:

    Thanks, Jane. Wise words. Power does not corrupt, it brings out the best in some people. But power attracts the sort of people who abuse it – and they need to be kept away from power. Democracies with engaged citizens and strong constitutions are the best defence. Funnily enough I was about to muse on a similar theme from a diffferent angle, which no doubt will out at some point.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Barry. You’ve nailed it. Power does indeed attract those who would abuse it, so it is up to all of us (and our political parties) to weed them out at the starting gate. Here it’s called the green-lighting process. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s getting more thorough with each embarrassing oversight. Clearly something about how each potential candidate is known to use/abuse previous positions needs to be on any green-lighting list. Apropos of your thoughts about a blog on this topic, I’m still sorting through your thought-provoking post on redemption. 😊

  5. This is a wonderful post. There is a lot of meat that (for me anyway, will take time to digest). Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Carol. I hope the digestion doesn’t end up giving you indigestion! 😏

      • Some days I am definitely not on top of my game – today is one of them. At the best of times I need to go away and think a bit before I respond (hopefully with some degree of intelligence LOL) But I hope that people do enter into public service with a large degree of wanting to actually be of service and not for personal gain. I think people like Trump are mainly an anomaly – at least I hope so.

  6. AMWatson207 says:

    This piece was wonderfully written but coming as it did, after a vice presidential debate in the USA, I was triggered. I’m done.  I don’t need to see any more debates. I’m full up on smarmy mansplaining and overtalk where we used to have statesmen and women. Even if, and it’s a big if, politicians initially run for noble reasons,
    the system grinds down ethics. “We’re living in the post-civil discourse era, and every instance of that ancient etiquette now is just imitation.”  Elizabeth Bruenig

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know what you mean, AM. I didn’t even watch it for that very reason. I think that’s what the quote alludes to, which is what’s so frightening. How do we get a civil discourse era back again. I don’t think we’ve lost it yet in Canada, and I just pray we can keep it that way. The tone encouraged by the misuse and abuse of social media and the extremely biased post-truth “news” media is exceedingly difficult to overcome.

  7. N.S. Palmer says:

    You’ve done a wonderful job of identifying very difficult problems. One problem is what it means for a person to be corrupt. Consider someone who sincerely believes in the morality of action X, and uses his or her position of power to force everyone to do it. Is that person corrupt? Would we say yes if X is not really moral, but no if it isn’t? There are no easy answers.

    When I worked on Capitol Hill in the United States, my estimate was that a third of the people in politics were sincere about their beliefs and were trying to do good. A third were careerists who didn’t care what they supported as long as they got money and status. And a third were actually evil people trying to do harm. I considered some of them corrupt, but I’m sure they didn’t think it about themselves. As always, life is a puzzle. Excellent blog post, though.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for this enlightened response, Mr. Palmer. I am heartened by your observation of the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. The fact that 1/3 of the people are there for the right reasons is encouraging. We have to see it that way. And then we have to find ways to get those people into the leadership roles and start to increase the ratio of that group. We’ve simply got to live in hope that the evil ratio diminishes and then disappears for lack of oxygen. You are so right that there are no hard and fast answers. Life is, indeed, a puzzle, but we need to live in hope – and be proactive. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. A very thought-provoking post with an excellent quotation to start the discussion. I don’t argue with any of it, but I think there are certain conditions that make it easier for tyrants to get ahead. An aggrieved population, even a large minority, will often clamor for a strongman. Also, scapegoats to blame. There is always a group to pick on, isn’t there? Finally, relative or actual hardship to make people feel pinched and deprived. In the United States, we have all those conditions brought on by forty years of public policy started by Reagan and aided by complacent (or worse) Democrats. I realize this only a brief summary of response, but I so appreciate that you brought this up. And, yes, there many examples of good leaders who forge the way forward out of dark times.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for a thorough and important response, Laurie. You are right on all counts. The U.S. isn’t alone in such negative turns, although where it has landed at the moment, at the end of those 40 years, is profoundly disturbing. Let’s hope that the upward turn starts very soon, and that impressive (younger?!) people of integrity take up of the mantel of positive leadership.

  9. Jill davies says:

    I hope the examples here are not simply exceptions to the saying power corrupts. But I would add to those you mention: Angela Merkel, Jimmy Carter, Joe Clark, David and Stephen Lewis, Bob Rae, Elizabeth May, Robert Stanfied, Frank McKenna, Hazel McCallion, Romeo Dallaire…This list is dominated by Canadians because I know more about them.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Heavens, no, Jill. I was just giving two examples that I’d hope would resonate with everyone. Your examples are all excellent. The good news is that a list comprised of what every reader suggested would be a long one, which should give us reassurance. But there is no doubt that the political world can be a vicious one, and social media isn’t making it easier. I hope we can find ways to rein in the viciousness, so that the best people are not turned off public service. We need them.

  10. LA says:

    Well, it begs to ask if anyone actually has character….

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hmm, LA. Not sure if you mean what is the definition of the term or whether you aren’t convinced anyone really does have the best intentions for the greater good! If it’s the latter then it is a sad state of affairs and there is much reason to despair. I’d prefer not to think that way. I do believe that there are good people who want to make a positive contribution to society.

      • LA says:

        I definitely meant the latter. I think there are few who put the good of others first. Much of the time I think it’s an ego trip for the do-gooder. It’s a matter of whether any acts are truly selfless.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Sure, but there’s a difference between wanting the best for others and yourself as well, and not giving a fig for anyone but yourself and your own interests.

        • LA says:

          In the end I think everyone works off their best interests. It always comes down to why does someone want to do something. While I think there are some who truly want to do good, I think most really think about their own interests 99% of the time. Who do they really put first. Whenever I see something I ask “why” but I’m a questioner. Why does someone choose to do “x”? I can’t see one side without looking at the other. There’s only so many Mother Teresas and Gandhis in the world…that’s why they stand out. I’d rather know exactly what someone’s motives are…what’s the saying, the devil you know. At least people who are out for themselves openly admit it honestly. No hypocrisy there

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Well, that’s definitely a legitimate philosophical theory. I’d like to think it’s far less than 99% myself. Perhaps the American ethos of individualism leans people in that country more in that direction, I don’t know.

        • LA says:

          Maybe. Or is it just human nature? I mean, how much do we want to look behind the curtain?

        • LA says:

          You could look at Ellen DeGeneres. Last year she was beloved for her kindness and generosity. Now people are saying she’s a monster. What is she? Doing good things so she doesn’t look
          Ike a monster? Misunderstood?

        • Jane Fritz says:

          I imagine that most people are a mixture, but some carry out most actions that impact others with the best of intentions while others do not. I don’t think that having Ellen’s negative traits exposed negates the generous and compassionate donations and gestures she has done over the years, although it definitely impacts her ability to keep making scads of money as a celebrity!

        • LA says:

          But the sentiment is that it was all an act and that she was “too nice” to be real. I don’t know…I guess I always think there’s a motive

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Well, that’s one approach, and maybe it’s a safe way to protect ourselves against disappointment. However. it seems a shame to go through life feeling skeptical about everyone’s motives for being nice to others. Most people find that being nice to others makes them feel better as well. ‘Help others, help yourself’, as they say. As long as your approach works for you and helps you lead a happy life, go for it!

  11. As always you impress me with the depth of your analysis.

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