Corruption and Leaders (Part 1): Power

By | June 12, 2015

[June 12, 2015]  There is a saying that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely …”1 When Lord Acton wrote this in a letter to Archbishop Creighton in 1887, he was disagreeing with the moral relativism of his time that was not critical of past corrupt leaders. He argued that all people should be held to universal moral standards. Corruption has been recognized since at least the beginning of recorded history and some argue that it is a universal characteristic. It follows that it takes considerable strength to resist corruption’s magnetism.

Yet the influence and degree of corruption is culturally dependent. To illustrate, I will provide a personal experience from the war in Iraq. As everyone knows, the insurgents were using suicide bombers who would drive up to a security check point of a guarded compound and blow themselves up with the hope of inflicting casualties. One coalition compound was the target of many suicide bombers and next to it was a heavily traveled road. The wall provided security and could not be relocated, thus, we had to move the road. The approval process from the local government would take a year unless we paid a “consulting fee” of $20,000. We paid the fee and immediately had permission to move the road.

Was this corruption? Yes. Did we know it was corruption? Yes. Everyone knew that we were not paying a consulting fee but bribing a senior Iraqi government official. The bribe undoubtedly saved many lives. Some of our engineers justified the bribe by saying that this is how business is done in the Middle East. While true, our job was to also obey U.S. law. Did we violate U.S. law by paying the consulting fee? Perhaps we did and, of course, it would be irrelevant that we saved lives.

Lord Action goes on to write that “great men are also almost always bad men …” He might have written instead that “powerful men are almost always bad men” because it is the power that makes for corruption. As in the case with our road in Iraq that had to be moved, one powerful man held the decision authority that we needed. Legally, we might have done the right thing and waited a year. Morally, saving lives was the right thing to do. Sadly, we also reinforced the idea that corruption pays and is acceptable behavior.

Corruption and leaders go together; always have and likely always will. Our job as senior leaders is to do our best to suppress corruption whenever we can or when possible to eliminate it. For those with power the tremendous allure is strong; so strong that few can resist it despite that corruption destroys trust and even the basic foundations of societies. That is why we find that politicians are prone to corruption, since they possess power, and even the strongest among them fall prey to its attraction.

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[Note] See more blog entries on “corruption”


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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.