Does Power Truly Corrupt Leaders?

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Professor Andy J. Yap (INSEAD) began his lecture on 23 June 2015 at the HEAD Foundation by posing the following question to the audience, “Does power truly corrupt leaders?” Audience members voiced their mixed opinions in response to his question. Some agreed that power corrupts, while others thought that power is not necessarily a corrupting influence. Prof. Yap addressed the question by presenting the latest research on the psychology of power.

Sharing research findings from various psychological experiments on the effects of power, Prof. Yap explained, “Individuals are psychologically transformed by the experience of power and the effects of feeling or being powerful in one setting carries over into other settings.” Prof. Yap described that a sense of power leads individuals to become more goal-oriented, risk-taking and overconfident. In fact, powerful people are likely to have an egotistical view of themselves, while objectifying others. This distorted view predisposes them to place their self-interests over the interests of others, and prevents them from understanding the perspectives of the people around them. Most notably, Prof. Yap has found through his research that power generally leads to more corrupt behaviors such as lying, cheating and stealing.

However, power also leads to positive outcomes that are critical for leadership. Prof. Yap explained that research has found that power buffers people from stress at work, and leads people to feel happier and enjoy greater well-being. It also leads to more abstract thinking, which is important for leaders’ big picture decision making. Power also allows leaders to be their more authentic selves. In fact, power acts as a catalyst that reveals the true self of the leader. For example, individuals who have a strong moral identity are likely to become more moralistic when given more power, while individuals who have a weak moral identity are likely to become less moralistic when given more power.

Prof. Yap ended his lecture by saying, “Power itself is not evil. Power is like nuclear energy. It can be used for good and bad.” Indeed, power has the tendency to lead individuals to engage in more corrupt behaviors. However, when powerful individuals are able to be self-reflective and temper their sense of entitlement with a sense of responsibility and humility, their power can be a force for good in the world.

Does Power Truly Corrupt Leaders?