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The Highest Trees… Are Most at Risk Of Becoming Corrupt

10/03/2012 14:27


People who don’t have much and are struggling to survive are forced to fend for themselves and would therefore be more likely to “do what it takes” even if it means cheating and behaving unethically, right? Wrong – a recent study at the Berkeley University of California found that the rich and those of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to cheat, fail to observe traffic laws and even take candy from kids.

The team conducting the research used various experiments to determine a possible link between wealth or socioeconomic standing and ethical behaviour. They discovered that wealthy and more powerful people were not only less likely to act generously; they were four times more prone to break traffic rules and engage in other unethical behaviour than those of lower social standing. The researchers concluded that because wealthy people have more financial resources, they do not have to rely on social bonds (e.g. attachment to family, commitment to social norms and institutions, interaction with society, etc) for survival. The consequence is that some wealthy and powerful individuals put their own interests first and have fewer misgivings about ignoring society’s rules. However, this does not mean that the poor are ethically superior: the researchers also found that “anyone’s ethical standards could be prone to slip” if they suddenly won the lottery and joined the ranks of the wealthy.

Reading about this, the parallel with leadership behaviour struck me – how many autocrats, embezzlers, and dictators started out well but became completely unethical once the effect of power took its toll? Two examples that immediately jump to mind are China’s Mao Zedong and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Like so many dictators throughout history Mao and Mugabe once inspired their followers with great ideals and noble values, but over time these were forsaken in favour of their own selfish agendas and political survival. It seems there are at least two major forces which cause leaders to become corrupted by power – intoxication with power and addiction to power.

To some extent, leaders who become intoxicated by the thrill of wielding great power lose their perspective on reality. As with the wealthy in the Berkeley experiment the leader starts believing that the laws and rules of society no longer apply to him or her. They can call the shots according to their own selfish whims and ambitions and few or none have the guts or the resources to challenge them. From 1958 to 1961 between 25 million and 40 million Chinese died in the “Great Famine”. This terrible human tragedy was brought on by a combination of natural disasters and Mao Zedong’s blind obsession to prove that China could out produce the West. Instead of collecting the harvests which soon lay rotting on the land, millions of people were forced to help with the production of iron ore to serve Mao’s selfish ambition. Perhaps his own words best describe the heartless and delusional mind of a leader who could allow his own egocentric aspirations and obsession with power to cause so many deaths: “I do not agree… that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefitting others. People like me want to satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes”. The iconic leader who had once courageously led his people to freedom had become so intoxicated by power that he regarded his own subjective “moral codes” as superior to that of the society which he was supposed to serve, even if it meant that millions of lives were lost.

Leaders who become addicted to power often display similar behaviours than those intoxicated by it, but the fear of losing power becomes an additional driving force. Forsaking the noble values, ideals and principles which they once professed then become a small price to pay for remaining in power for as long as possible. Elected as Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister in 1980, Mugabe first revised the country’s constitution in 1987 to make himself President and later did so repeatedly to enable him to remain in power. Over the years many laws were changed, elections allegedly rigged and thousands of those who opposed or threatened his position had been intimidated, tortured and killed. Again a leader who was once the self-sacrificing (he spent more than 10 years in prison for political reasons) hero of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle turned into a ruthless dictator by his addiction to the power of his office.

 While some might argue that Mao and Mugabe are two extreme cases, history is rife with similar and perhaps even more extreme examples at all levels of society. Just consider the array of celebrities, clergy and organizational leaders whose unethical behaviour saw them fall from grace over the last decade or two. Also consider that the number of cases are very difficult to determine – while the transgressions of some are exposed publicly many others are covered up in fear of a scandal so they’re allowed to just quietly slip into obscurity.

So what does this say to you and me, irrespective at which level of leadership we are currently functioning? Is there anything we can do to prevent us from succumbing to the pitfalls of increased power? How can you and I be sure that the values and ethical norms we now profess will stand if discarding them becomes a stepping stone to much greater personal achievements and rewards? I would love to hear from your experience and insights on this…

  • Also see the LinkedIn discussion on this topic here:

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