Another day, another leader seems to fall from a seat of power. The #MeToo movement has shown us devastating evidence of how male superiors have abused their power over female subordinates. The Catholic Church has offered demoralizing revelations of how priests have abused their power over nuns and children.
When leaders cross the line, we often blame power. As Lord Acton famously expressed it, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But it’s not entirely true.
Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I wanted to understand the impact of power on people. I sat down with two dozen leaders, including the current or former CEOs of Microsoft, Google, General Motors, Goldman Sachs and the Gates Foundation. Over and over again, I heard that power doesn’t change people as much as it accentuates their preexisting traits.
As Slack founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield quipped, “It doesn’t make you an [expletive]. It just makes you more of who you already were.”
That’s actually a good summary of the new line of thinking in psychology: Power is like an amplifier. Whoever we were before just gets louder.
In one experiment, psychologists set up an annoying fan so that it would blow in people’s faces. The participants’ odds of moving it away, turning it off, or unplugging it spiked from 42 percent to 69 percent if they had just written about a time when they had power.
In other experiments, when people were reminded of feeling powerful, they were more likely to express their own opinions and ideas instead of conforming to others. And when they were assigned the role of manager rather than subordinate before a negotiation, they were more likely to bargain their own way instead of adapting to an opponent’s style.
Power disinhibits us. It releases us from the shackles of social pressure. Gaining influence and authority frees us up to act on our real wishes and show our true colors. Few would argue that we need look any further than the current White House occupant to see the ultimate example of how power can magnify a person’s personality.
For decades, psychologists were convinced instead that power corrupts. One of the key demonstrations was the classic Stanford prison simulation, where students were randomly assigned to play the role of prisoners or prison guards. The guards ended up taking away the prisoners’ clothes and forcing them to sleep on concrete floors.
“In only a few days, our guards became sadistic,” psychologist Philip Zimbardo said. The “power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.”
The results were so shocking that a critical detail was overlooked: the students who showed up had been recruited to participate in a “study of prison life.” When psychologists ran an experiment to figure out what kinds of people are drawn to that kind of study, they found that volunteers for a prison study scored about 26 percent higher on aggression and belief in social dominance, 12 percent higher on narcissism and 10 percent higher on authoritarianism and Machiavellianism than people who signed up for psychological studies in general.
Power didn’t corrupt ordinary people. It corrupted people who already leaned toward corruption. And it wasn’t the first time.
Back in the late 1930s, a man fresh out of law school was trying his first case when the judge threatened to disbar him: “I have serious doubts whether you have the ethical qualifications to practice law,” the judge said.
The lawyer’s name was Richard Nixon.
At the time, Nixon admitted to taking questionable actions without his client’s authority. Power didn’t corrupt him; he corrupted power. Being president revealed to the outside world who he was all along.
Consider another lawyer, who was running for Senate but withdrew from the election because he was afraid that if he ran, he would split the vote and cause a corrupt candidate to win. After he was later elected president, he used his authority a little differently. On a weekly basis, he held open office hours to hear the concerns of ordinary citizens, often for more than four hours a day.
That lawyer’s name? Abraham Lincoln.
If you believe power corrupts, it’s hard to explain Lincoln. Being president didn’t just fail to bring out the worst in him; it brought out the best. As Lincoln’s biographer Robert Green Ingersoll put it: “Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. . . . If you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.”
In another experiment, psychologists assigned people a set of tasks and let them delegate some to a colleague. People who tend to be “givers” claimed the long, boring ones for themselves and gave away the short, interesting tasks. So did more selfish people — when they lacked power.
But when they were put in a position of influence, the selfish “takers” stopped being fakers. They hogged the quick, exciting work and dumped the long, dull responsibilities on a colleague. You can even get this effect by just letting selfish people sit in the large desk chair in an office instead of the guest chair: They abused their assumed power and kept the easy, interesting work for themselves.
That’s what happened to Nixon: Sitting in the ultimate seat of power amplified his unethical tendencies.
“Power doesn’t always corrupt,” author Robert Caro has said, reflecting on Lyndon B. Johnson. “Power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.”
When we claim that power corrupts, we let powerful people off the hook. How you use authority reveals your character: Selfish leaders hoard power for personal gain. Servant leaders share power for social good. And the ultimate test of character for people in power is how they treat people who lack it.