Most have heard the saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Those memorable words were written by the 19th century British historian, Lord Acton. Most would agree with the sentiment. Certainly, Guyanese are all too familiar with the negative effects of having power – people who have power often display objectionable behaviours.
Power is defined as, ‘the ability or capacity to direct or influence the behaviour of others, or the course of events, while themselves remaining uninfluenced.’ Leaders such as those in business, politics, and even the breadwinner of a home have such power. That said, politicians in positions of power are of particular interest because of the immense scope of the influence that they wield, and the many types of power that they possess: positional power – because they may occupy a high office, referent power – because they have other powerful colleagues, coercive power – because they can threaten or punish people, and reward power.
Political leaders necessarily need to have power to enable leadership and allow them do their work effectively; the truth of this fact is self-evident. However, experts agree that the possession of power often brings out the worst in people; many powerful people feel superior to others, they feel different or unique; they may develop a sense of entitlement (the arrogant belief that they deserve special privileges). Those sentiments may result in undesirable behaviours, to put it mildly.
Scholars tell us that such people may begin to believe that social rules and laws do not apply to them, they may lose the ability to feel empathy, and they may become heartless. According to a study conducted by Professor Dr Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam, powerful people usually hold the irrational belief that they are better role models than others. This is but one example of the accepted fact that the possession of power almost always distorts the powerful person’s perception of reality. The fact that people who interact with powerful people are usually afraid to contradict or correct them only intensifies the problems.
Worse still, as the pathology progresses, powerful people may actively seek to get rid of subordinates who are objective, and they may choose instead to surround themselves with meek and docile sycophantic underlings. Accompanying this, powerful people may treat their staff and other supporters with scant regard, and make unreasonable demands; they may behave socially inappropriately; and they may become bullyies. And as time progresses, such behaviours – left unchecked – may become worse.
Those undeniable facts have long been recognised. Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Editor, fortunately, all is not lost; the experts say that a powerful person can impede the development of such negative traits by actively working to disrupt the degenerative process. This necessarily requires that the powerful person recognise, acknowledge, and accept the truth of the matter, engage in wilful introspection, and take positive action.
Such action, say the experts, includes developing a team approach to problem solving; abandoning the ‘I’ mentality in favour of a ‘we’ attitude. They must foster a personal philosophy of interdependence and co-operation. And importantly, they must consciously, constantly strive to remain humble, and rooted in reality.
Editor, I take this opportunity to point out that I, personally, became outspoken in politics because I saw for myself how power can negatively affect otherwise ‘normal’ people, much to the detriment of those over whom they exert influence. I point out too, that it is as a result of that outspokenness and other actions of persons such as yours truly that change has, and can continue to be realised. In other words, we the people have power as well; we have the power to elevate the owner of a business, or to install a person into political office. And it follows that we have the power to demote or remove such persons if we, for our own reasons, choose to so do.
With this in mind, persons in positions of power may wish to think very carefully about their attitudes, approaches, and mental states, and they may be well advised to conduct themselves accordingly.