“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a phrase we often hear. It comes from the English moralist and historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton (1834–1902) who also added, “Great men are almost always bad men.”
Dalberg-Acton probably didn’t have a hard time coming up with examples to prove his point. History is filled with leaders who tirelessly worked to expand their possessions and effect their desires without paying any mind to their followers.
Caligula, the Roman emperor from 37-41 A.D., is the classic example of a leader who favored hedonism and mindless bloodletting to pragmatic governing. Not only was his tenure marked with murder and rape–he wanted to be treated as a God (one who had suffered from seizures).
Sadly, history repeats itself and some leaders still abuse their power as this Time Magazine slide-show reveals.
While we consider Richard Nixon’s spying or Silvio Berlusconi’s sexual misconduct–it’s tempting to agree with Dalberg-Acton and conclude that all leaders would compromise their moral code for personal gain. It’s a shortsighted view, but one that’s is continually confirmed every time an unprincipled politician or CEO makes the front page. Proactive leaders should anticipate this skepticism and show at every opportunity that they aren’t tempted by power’s amoral invitations.