What have Stalin, the Pope and the chief executive of a large bank got in common? The answer to that is power. We have talked about this subject before, and today I want to look at what the psychologists have to say. It is important to understand the psychological effects – even damage – which the possession of power can cause. In doing so, we may understand our masters better and, more importantly, ourselves – should we come to own power.
The first characteristic which I note is that power and loneliness are inseparable. When Churchill and Stalin held their awkward meetings during the war, we might think that no two people were further separated than these two. In fact they had more in common with each other than either had with any of their countrymen. An often repeated, but apocryphal tale of the last word of advice given to a bishop (or a pope) before consecration is “Congratulations. From now on you will always eat well, and you will never hear the truth again.”
A further characteristic is that power obliges us to review the values which we bring to decisions. Good leaders must have a strong, even ruthless, focus on their key objectives. They dare not let too much pity get in the way. We may have the luxury of judging Churchill in his explicit strategy of bombing civilians, or Truman and Hiroshima, or Stalin and slave labour. They did not. They had a chessboard. They had pieces. And they had a game to win. The psychologists call this the dehumanisation of power.
We may want the powerful to resist that tendency, but it could be important that they do not. A surgeon can appear to be polite and full of human care. But the moment these feelings are allowed to rule his head, the patient is in danger. A sentimental surgeon is the patient’s enemy. Similarly a sentimental business leader who, for instance, fails to lay off workers in time to save the business is no one’s friend.
There is an additional temptation here. A leader will be impotent if he allows himself to believe that he is not the best person for the job. (Indeed the leader who doubts his own competence can become prone to bully boy behaviour.) Thus one of his objectives is to ensure that he retains power. To do this he may take questionable steps. And this need may increase with the passage of time. A leader must necessarily absorb a great deal of stress, and this can wear down his resilience to temptation. While power is by nature a burden, its possession becomes the only reward he has; it can block out the ideals which he brought into office, and demand decisions which he would otherwise have repudiated. He can become increasingly callous and increasingly withdrawn from human values.
In our innocence we expect those in power to be scrupulous in their moral standards; we judge any faults with particular condemnation. I only need to mention some topical examples: MPs living off expenses, senior members of the Revenue sitting on the boards of tax avoidance companies, banks conning their customers within a whisker of fraud, politicians willing to do a favour for a friend – the list is long. But we should not be surprised. Personal corruption is the occupational hazard of those whose power puts them above the rules. Recent research tells us that power can bring about a separation between public judgment and private behaviour. The result can make the powerful harsh judges of others while being indulgent with their own standards. The outcome is likely to be hypocrisy.
This September an analysis of 42 American presidents was published. (link below) It is no surprise that successful presidents shared many, unappealing, characteristics with psychopaths, but in varying degrees. Fearless social dominance, self-centered impulsivity, superficial charm, guiltlessness, callousness, dishonesty and immunity to anxiety were listed.
These considerations may help us to analyse structures in the Church. If you wanted to create potential corruption you would set up a power caste which was permanent, invulnerable and armed with mighty sanctions. History shows that you would get it – from defensive cover ups to Vatileaks and Maciel Degollado. And, unless ways can be found to solve this, will continue to do so.
Clerical paedophilia, which is indeed a corruption of power, points us to another source of corruption: power which comes without status. This is the territory of the naturally inferior who find in power some consolation for their limitations. In the secular world we think immediately of the petty public servant, or policemen, even care home staff. While they are very much a minority in such groups, their toxic effect is disproportionate to their numbers.
The possession of power clearly constitutes an occasion of sin. Its effective exercise is likely to require the numbing of our natural human feelings for those we lead. And it is a great stimulator of self-delusion. With the passage of time both characteristics tend to increase. No wonder Octavian was accompanied on a Triumph by a slave who whispered, “You are not a god.”
But the slave whispered, he did not shout. That would never do because there is a mystique about power which speaks to our natural human instinct of obedience to authority. Lose that mystique, become the hail fellow well met to those whom you command, and only the strongest of us can maintain authority. Ask any schoolteacher who seeks popularity ahead of respect.
Study of 42 presidents at