Maybe you’ve heard or read some version of this:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
                                                                    John E.E.D Acton, 1st Baron Acton

Most of the time I’ve heard it, or read it, the first clause tends to get mangled or at least changed, to “Power corrupts…” Instead of shifting from a possibility it becomes an absolute. Perhaps that is part of the reason I disagree with the generalization.

Avoiding the question of the definition or nature of “power,” which is less a tangible thing than a description of a relationship, I prefer to examine why people seek, or do not seek, power, authority or the trappings thereof. (For now, and for simplicity, I will refer to these things as “power” while recognizing the ambiguity.)

Do people aspire to positions of power because that is the natural order of things? Are they a “born leader?” Or, do they seek positions of power, or authority, for some other reason? Maybe for their own ends?

I suspect there are plenty of examples of each of these. There are other examples of people being in the “right spot” at the “right time” and being pushed into a position of authority or power.

I tend to think of “power” and “positions of power” as being something akin to Tolkein’s character Aragorn, speaking of Galadriel and the forest of Lothlorien.

There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself.
                                 J.R.R. Tolkein, “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

I do not believe it is power that corrupts. I suspect, strongly, that the individual’s nature is exposed more readily when they have the opportunity to exercise that power, with little or no oversight.

That may be unsettling to some people. The idea that their favorite manager, athlete, TV-personality or politician has actually been an ass all along, and has been hiding that reasonably well, can be a tad off-putting. Simple fact is most people working in some form of entertainment really like the positive response. From personal experience, it is fantastic to get a standing ovation and called back for an encore or two or three. It is a huge boost to the ego. Feel the endorphins rushing through the body? Great, isn’t it! Loads better than playing to polite applause.

Musicians and actors live on those moments. Yes, I know – art matters.The challenge matters. Still, while the money can be good (or really crappy) it is the applause and approval that drives many people.

Politicians are fairly similar. They really like talking in front of friendly audiences who cheer madly and read huge importance into the slightest thing. People who are critical or asking really uncomfortable questions? Not so much.

I once read somewhere that the greatest problem with hereditary monarchies is you sometimes get a reluctant monarch. The greatest problem with democracies is the people WANT the job. Always ask yourself “why?” when someone talks about public office. The “5 Whys” work depressingly well with politicians and their motives.

These examples are pretty obvious, right? People seek stardom or “higher office” usually for their own ends. They are often couched in grand language about being an artist or serving the public interest. Having met and dealt with many, I don’t buy it so willingly as I did 40 years ago.

And don’t get me going on athletes or “TV personalities”. SPEAKING of self-aggrandizement and self-importance… right.

And Managers

If you are fortunate, you have had a manager or supervisor or two you could count on to always have your back. That same manager probably also found ways to inspire you to heights and feats you never dreamed of being able to achieve. If you were really lucky, that manager also looked out for your development as a professional craftsperson and, in some unique cases, as a more-developed person.

If you are really, really lucky, you’ve had managers like that without having to deal with other, less desirable managers in the office.

You know the type.

The ones whose employees flop back in the chairs at their desks after meetings. The same “resources” go through the motions as they are told to with no variation. Because if they do, they will get in trouble, whether the variation is important or not – it is a variation.

These managers have determined that positional authority is a justification for “motivating” their “resources.” They demand people do stuff RIGHT NOW. They insist that they have the answers to the questions and don’t ask them questions because doing so means you were not paying attention. The ones that belittle people in meetings.

The ones whose “resources” are terrified of losing their jobs.


I’ve seen both types of “managers” in the same company – in the same department, no less. They both claim to be working toward the good of the organization. It is possible they are and simply have different views on that “good” is. However, in the instances in my memory, at least one type was working for his own glorification.

While the idea of a “servant leader” is certainly not new, a fair number of Managers I can recall would reject that concept out of hand. Their job was to direct actions, our job was to make them look good. Period.

You saw that readily 30 or even 20 years ago. From my experience, 10 years ago they tended to be more nuanced. All velvet to people they needed something from, and were out of their direct zone of influence, and crass and abrasive to others.

When confronted, their job was to “get things done.” At least twice I caught one of these folks in outright lies – and called him on it. In a meeting. With other managers. And the VP they all reported to. That afternoon, when no one was around, it was yelling, ranting, profanity streams, threats on my job.

That was probably the first time I did the “scary big white man” thing. He backed off.

I out bullied the bully.


That is what those “leaders” are – bullies.

If threats and management by intimidation is your leadership style, you are a bully, if not a dictator.

Positional authority in any context is not absolute. There come certain trappings with those positions. These are part of the “power” fears people have. This authority, this power, in the vast majority of situations should be limited. It appears to be unlimited, or “powerful” only when no restraints are present either by watchful oversight or by concerted, proper resistance.

It is not a writ to make people’s lives miserable for any reason, and corporate profits are probably the worst reason to make the lives of people who make the product that drives those profits miserable. People who are in fear of losing their positions and the means to support themselves and their families will rarely speak out, until the pain becomes unbearable. This is where the trade union/organized labor movement grew from – the refusal to be beaten down (quite literally in many cases)

Being “in charge” does not give you the right to be an ass. Ever.

Being “in charge” does not mean you are the one who “has all the answers.” In the “over 30 years” I’ve been in software development, I have NEVER seen a software project where one person knew all the answers absolutely. Never.

Leadership, Power and Authority can be used for good or ill. They are not inherently one or the other. The good or evil, comes from the individual people themselves who hold them.