“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Writing to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, Lord Acton penned words that, to this day, seem sadly to be true. What is it about power that tends to corrupt even those who pledge to do good? There are of course exceptions to the rule, but generally we see that people who ascend to positions of power tend to get to a point where they are corrupted – in thought, behaviour, action and intent. This has to end, and leaders need to practice far more real, humanistic and ethical leadership now more than ever.
Mighty dictators have risen to levels where anyone who dares disobey their commands is surreptitiously and unceremoniously shot – Stalin, Hitler, Il Duce – all had that act down pat. But those stations of power and abuse thankfully have become rarer and rarer in modern society. What has not yet disappeared is when leaders of organizations feel that they have the position and ability to do and say what they want without consequence.
The unfortunate reality is that humans – and let’s be honest, mostly men – are still being corrupted by the power that they have. Whether it be boss, owner, investor, or manager, too many people in positions of authority still feel like they have the ability to do and say as they like. This must end. A culture of greater safety, dignity and respect must rise from the ashes of where leadership seems to have gone over time. We must work to restore the trust of fellow colleagues, and society, in the role of leadership. Fortunately, movements are emerging that are beginning to shift the sands.
I don’t want to throw every leader under the bus. That is not my intent. I think that there are more good leaders than there are bad leaders. But we still have too many bad leaders. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkley has published research in the Harvard Business Review on how those in roles of power become corrupted – in mind, thought, and action. They become less understanding, patient, grateful and human. In short, those who have power tend to think pretty highly of themselves and begin to do bad, impolite, rude and unacceptable things. The seed we must plant in new and aspiring leaders is this: with your position you will have power, and that power tends to corrupt. Don’t let it.
Frankly, there was a week in January when the Canadian political scene was embroiled in cases of sexual harassment – Patrick Brown and Kent Hehr. And lord knows who’s next. I am hearing weekly of people being ousted, rightly so, for inappropriate conduct. I am getting more pissed with my fellow men. Gents, we all need to step up. Humans, we all need to step up. We must convey the message to those in power who think they can do what they want. No, you can’t. For those of us who follow a humanistic and ethical leadership path, we must call the others out.
What too many leaders, such as Travis Kalanik formerly of Uber, think is that people are dispensable and not worthy of their respect or dignified treatment. Your title may bring you power, but your power is only rooted in your ability to engage and energize a team of people to do their greatest work – what Simon Sinek calls making people feel safe, and leaders eating last. Workplaces must be made safe to work for all. People like Kalanik are finally getting called out. Unfortunately it is taking the courage of the victims to call them out. The move to a greater ethical standard of leadership must now be picked up by all of us. Practicing it, and calling out those who don’t. It shouldn’t take the victim to come forward. It is incumbent upon all of us to hold each other to account. I am tired of learning of fellow leaders and men who have done harmful things. Guys, just stop it.
The role of leadership demands the best in all of us. Leaders who betray that standard and feel they can exert power in dangerous and painful ways only serve to taint the entire image of leadership with a negative brush. Leaders need to create safe space for all to do their best work. They need to be clear on what is acceptable and what is not. And they need to take action when people cross that line. It is incumbent on leaders to call out the negative behaviours of other leaders to not only end this culture of predatory and unacceptable behaviour, but also to preserve the trust and faith in those who have committed their careers and lives to the practice of leadership in order to make their companies, organizations and communities better. For the sake of that, leaders must do better, be better, and hold each other to the highest of accounts.