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The Problem With Power: Why We Don't Get The Leaders We Deserve

The people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and least compassionate individuals. And once they possess power, they usually devote themselves to entrenching, increasing and protecting their power, with scant regard for the welfare of others.
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One of the great things about democracy is that it allows anyone, no matter their initial social circumstances, to rise into positions of influence and power. But one of the worst things about democracy is that allows anyone, no matter their personality and their character flaws, to rise into positions of influence and power.

Throughout most of recorded history, one of the human race's biggest problems has been that people who rise into positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with power. Desire for power correlates with negative personality trails, such as selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. So the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and least compassionate individuals. And once they possess power, they usually devote themselves to entrenching, increasing and protecting their power, with scant regard for the welfare of others.

Often those who attain power are either psychopaths or narcissists. Psychopathic leaders are characteristic of economically undeveloped countries with poor infrastructures and insecure political and social institutions. (Sadaam Hussain, Colonel Gaddafi and Charles Taylor of Liberia are examples.) However, such psychopaths generally don't become leaders in affluent, first world countries (perhaps they are more likely to join multi-national corporations). In these countries, there has been a movement away from psychopathic to narcissitic leaders. After all, what profession could be more suited to a narcissitic personality than politics, especially with the constant attention of the mass media? Many psychologists have pointed out that figures such as Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have many signs of narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissists feel entitled to gain power because of their sense of superiority and self-importance. They feel it is right that other people should be subservient to them, while craving for their attention and admiration. At the same time, their lack of empathy means that they don't have any qualms about exploiting other people to attain or maintain their power.

A large part of the problem is the kind of people who should take on positions of power - because they are empathic, fair-minded, responsible and wise - are naturally disinclined to gain power. Empathic individuals like to remain on the ground, interacting with others, rather than elevating themselves. They don't desire control or authority, but connection. So this leaves the positions free for people who do crave control and authority.

Different Types of Leaders

However, it would obviously be misleading to say that it's only psychopaths and narcissists who who attain positions of power. I would suggest that there are generally three types of leaders.

The first are 'accidental leaders.' These gain power without a large degree of conscious intention on their part, but due to a combination of privilege and merit. Then there are idealistic and altruistic leaders. These are probably the rarest type. They feel impelled to gain power for altruistic reasons. Once they attain power, they become (or at least try to become) instruments of change, often battling with more conservative forces who are reluctant to shift. The third - and unfortunately most common - are narcissistic and psychopathic leaders, whose motivation for gaining power is purely self-serving.

In my view, what we urgently need are checks to power - not just to limit the exercise of power, but to limit its attainment. Put simply, the kind of people who desire power the most - people who the most ruthless and non-empathic - should not be allowed to attain positions of authority. Every country (and indeed every organisation) should employ psychologists to assess potential leaders and determine their levels of empathy, narcissism or psychopathy - and hence determine their suitability for power. At the same time, empathic people - who generally do not have the lust to gain power - should be encouraged to take positions of authority. Even if they don't want to, they should feel a responsibility to, if only to prevent tyrants from doing so.

This might sound absurd and impractical, but we would by no means be the first societies to regulate power in this way. There are many tribal hunter-gatherer societies where great care is taken to ensure that unsuitable individuals don't attain power. Any person who shows signs of a desire for power and wealth is usually barred from consideration as a leader. If a dominant male tries to take control of the group, primal peoples practise what the anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls "egalitarian sanctioning." They gang up against the domineering person, ostracise him, desert him. Just as importantly, in many groups people don't choose to become leaders, but are chosen, whether they want power or not. If they are deemed experienced and wise, or if their skills suit a particular situations, they are asked to take a leading role.

We should follow these principles too. It would entail massive changes of personnel for most of the world's governments, institutions and companies - but it would make the world a much less dangerous place.

Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK.

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