What is it about Power?

The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men (and women) are almost always bad men (and women).”

Years ago an entrepreneur that I had backed went to meet a well-known person in the tech industry.  A person whose name is known outside of the tech world.   She was nervous, excited and a bit overwhelmed with the prospects of meeting with this person who was interested in hearing about her and her business.  What I said to her before the meeting is when you pass that bathroom on the way to his office, remember he went to the bathroom in there just like everyone else.

What is it about power?  Why does power corrupt so many?  Why do some people in positions of power become someone else?  Why does some start to believe that they are untouchable and able to behave in ways that are morally reprehensive?

Les Moonves, Harvey Weinstein, Sheryl Sandberg, Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein, Imelda Marcos, Benjamin Netanyahu and plenty more.  Is it that they have been kow-towed by everyone for so many years and combined with their financial power it has made them feel above it all?

There is no doubt that a lot of power comes financial success but it does not give anyone in that position the right to take advantage of others and manipulate the system for their own purposes.  Believing that you are above it all is very dangerous behavior.  When start sweeping dust under the carpet because you believe you can, it eventually creeps out.

People always get caught.  You don’t pay your taxes, you get caught.  You prey on young girls, you get caught.  You hire people to destroy someone else to benefit your company and manipulate social media, you get caught.  You steal from your country, you get caught.  You launder money, you get caught.  You operate illegal businesses, you get caught.

Is it the thrill of power or is it the belief that power makes you above it all?  Power does not have to corrupt but time and time again we see that power creates strange bedfellows who somehow have lost their moral compass and believe that this time they won’t get caught.  The reality is, you always do.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Josh Rutstein

    Thanks for a great post and reminder that nature usually swings back to normal, even if the shift is messy. As one who wants to make the world a better place, I have come to the unfortunate realization that you need influence (power) to affect that change. That kind of sucks because we can clearly see the corrupting forces that enable a shortcut path to that power. What’s worse is those who make some sort of altruistic moral trade-off that their personal corruption is in the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one. Hopefully technology finds a weigh to scale mentor relationships and thought leaders who can remind people of their moral responsibility on their journey to power. I keep looking for them. Hopefully the events of the past few years can inspire others to search as well.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Let’s hope you are right.

  2. William Mougayar

    Couldn’t agree more. Not sure who said this, and I’m paraphrasing the quote:People reveal their real character when they have lots of money or power. It can bring the worst in them, or the best in them.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Good quote

  3. JLM

    .All people are a flawed combination of good and bad/evil. There may be some basis for saying that the attainment of power brings one or the other to the surface or said another way, it becomes accessible. But, I don’t think it becomes ascendant meaning bad/evil doesn’t overwhelm good or vice versa.In part of human existence, we seek power — to empower ourselves or others (to empower women in the startup world as an example), to distribute power equally. I say this because I don’t think it is power which corrupts, but rather power exposes our own innate corruption.It is also the means by which we change things in the world when we wield power to accomplish worthy objectives.Small point — John McCain in his funeral arrangements went out of his way to exclude President Trump from attending his public funeral at the National Cathedral. Seemed like a petty and small thing. With the perspective of the passage of time, it was a petty and small thing. It was John McCain, but not all of John McCain.Geo HW Bush went out of his way to ensure that President Trump was not excluded from his funeral though the Bush clan had been hypercritical of President Trump and gone out of their way to ensure the public knew they had not voted for him. Geo HW Bush’s gesture was made larger by the backdrop against which it was silhouetted.Two men, two very different reactions to a seemingly identical stimulus.Interestingly enough, President Trump extended a thoughtful kindness to Geo HW Bush and the Bush family by sending Air Force One to Texas to pick up Geo HW Bush’s body to transport it to Washington DC where it would sit in the rotunda. He also will extend the same kindness in offering Air Force One for the return trip to Texas for internment at Texas A & M.This was done without any prodding and was President Trump’s idea, though an obvious one.I am optimistic about the state of man when it comes to the ability to use power for good, but I think it will always reflect the mix of good v evil resident in all men’s souls.When we have power, it also awakens us to our duty of care. In business those with certain positions (directors) have a fiduciary duty underpinned by a larger duty of “care”. Delaware Gen Corp Law is based on this notion.In general, when we have power, we have a duty of care to ourselves and others.We don’t need to restrict power, we need to be more thoughtful about how we use it.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  4. Pointsandfigures

    Michaelmadigan.com, if you haven’t watched it watch it. It is this post. Not sex harassment, although his staffer was guilty of that (and voters looked the other way). I think it’s more about a controlling personality. If you feel like you have to be in control you are going to use power to manipulate people.

  5. LE

    Great topic. And on which I have given a great deal of thought to this over time actually.Is it that they have been cow-towed by everyone for so many years and combined with their financial powerWell in short, and at least from what I had experienced early on (with a minor amount of power) it’s that people don’t challenge you in a normal way when they stand to gain something from you.When I was in the business which I started right after graduating from college, I used to love to lecture and espouse my wisdom to employees in one on one meetings. And they would patiently listen to as much as I wanted to say anytime I wanted to say it. They would act interested and would send off signals to that effect that made me want to do it even more. [1] It felt good talking. And having people listen to you. No question about that. Ditto for meetings with sales people and others who stood to make money off of us. They were always ‘all ears’ to anything and everything that I wanted to talk about. You had control.Then I sold the business and had a 3 month consulting agreement for the transition. Everything changed. 50% of the employees (and that is an arbitrary number used to make my point; I didn’t count them) still wanted to hear what I said pretty much (although not as intently since I wasn’t the boss anymore) and 50% literally ignored me. Now that could have been because they were upset that I sold the business. Or it could have been because they didn’t need me anymore. The salesman? I think all of them ignored me. I was no longer of value to them apparently. They would walk by my office and not even say hi. (I am probably exaggerating here but that is what it seemed like (this was many years ago). Of course could also be because I busted them on pricing as well which I am glad they did. I am not their friend.But here’s the thing. I was literally a nobody (power wise; 20 employees) compared to some of the people today that you are referencing. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have so many people for lack of a better way to put it ‘sucking up to you’. Especially if you think it’s because you deserve it ‘I am great’ vs. the reason I am giving (people want something from you).I will tell you something funny though. Even my sister in law (god bless her) is really being much nicer to me and respectful ever since we bought another shore place that my wife invites her to visit. I can actually notice a difference in how she treats me. Ditto for my inlaws. Before they would pretty much not take into consideration my feelings when saying things around me. Now that they know I control access to something they want they tread much lighter. By ‘control access’ I mean that my wife will always check with me prior to inviting anyone to visit to make sure I am not around. She doesn’t assume it’s ok. That simple message to anyone means ‘my husband counts and I don’t decide this on my own he is important and part of the decision’. That in itself is enough to change behavior. What does that tell you? This is small potatoes once again compared to what others have. [2][1] Part of this is also that because they have to listen to you they do listen to you. So even though that seems abnormal in a positive way it’s really not. One of the big things about getting a referral for a pitch meeting from a trusted third party is that the person you are meeting with will listen to you. They might not buy what you are selling but they will listen to you. So what I said would have impact more than baseline because people would need to listen to what I was saying. They couldn’t float off and they couldn’t shift the conversation to another topic (as happens when that is not the case).[2] Same thing happened when I had a boat years ago. People would be all over me wanting to know if they could come out on the boat. Would call up wanting to know ‘will you be down can we go out on the boat?’. Yiddish word ‘schnorrers’.

    1. Gotham Gal

      schnorrers. one of the greatest yiddish words.