“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” historian John Dalberg wrote at the end of the 19th century. A truism today, but scientists have begun to wonder if power is to blame for corruption or if people who seek power have aspects of character that are corruptible. They’ve noted that being an extrovert is a necessary leadership quality but one that deteriorates once an individual obtains authority. Also of note, the attributes that help men rise in influence are different for women. (“Power Moves,” by Theodor Schaarschmidt, Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2017, pgs. 51-55.)
Dominance and a willingness to break the rules is a key factor in leadership for men. Such behavior suggests an air of privilege which, in turn, attracts followers. (Ibid pg. 53.) However, a 2008 study of social hierarchies within college sororities shows the opposite is true for women. Being forward impedes an ambitious woman’s progress. Other women use gossip as a tool to keep her in her place. For a female to rise from the ranks takes patience and an agenda the enriches the community rather than herself. (Ibid, 53-54.)
Despite the different paths men and women take to obtain power, once they achieve it, the rewards and risks are the same. Power brings privilege and a sense of entitlement. (Ibid p. 53) The greater that sense, the greater the distance between leaders and their supporters. As the psychological distance grows, those at the top experience diminished feelings of empathy towards others. Ultimately, a leader focuses largely on what’s good for him or herself. (Ibid, pg. 55.) But even from this exalted vantage point, studies show men and women differed: “…men tend[ ] to disadvantage other group members far more often than women…” (Ibid pg. 55.)
Bertrand Russell observed that power was the driving force in human behavior. (Ibid pg. 53.) Yet once individuals achieve it, their “personalities shift in unexpected ways.” (Ibid pg. 55.) The dark side of character emerges: narcissism, psychopathy and a willingness to pursue goals without regard for moral or legal limits. (Ibid Pg. 53.)
Not all influential people lose their humanity, of course, and the difference is yet to be accounted for. Do internal or external factors come into play? Until scientist learn more, we are left to ponder the question: Is Donald Trump a breath of fresh air, or a man who mistakes unbridled ego for leadership?