Holding Power Graciously

June 14, 2016

I just read a news piece about yet another man removed from office because he’d been found abusing his authority. This one happened to be a university chancellor, but he could as easily have been a CEO or general, church leader or congressman. The names and titles and particulars are interchangeable. The story, all too often, is much the same.

It reminded me of a British historian and politician, John Dalberg-Acton, and his correspondence with a friend on the topic of authority and accountability.

The friend held that those seated in high office — say, the king and the pope — should be treated with more deference and given broader benefit of the doubt than other mortals.

Lord Acton vigorously disagreed.

It’s just the opposite! he said. (I’m paraphrasing.) If you’re going to slant the way you treat people in positions of great power, you should slant it in exactly the other direction. The higher their position, the more scrutiny they deserve, because they are that much more likely to be up to no good.

Why? Because, he said:

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

And people have been quoting those seven words ever since, as if they were as sacrosanct as Newton’s laws of motion.

I don’t think so. The drumbeat of corruption headlines notwithstanding, I’ve never bought that idea. I’ve just seen too many examples where it didn’t happen like that.

Here’s what I think does happen: I think power creates a distortion in the human space-time continuum. Just like the curvature Einstein said happens in space-time caused by uneven distribution of energy and matter, creating the phenomenon of gravity.

And no, I don’t understand what the heck Einstein was talking about any better than you do. But I’ve seen it happen. We all have.

Leadership generates a sort of gravitational field around itself. When you are in a leadership position or position of influence, your mass increases — not physically, but interpersonally. Your gravitas.

The sheer fact that others are following you, listening to what you say, looking to you for direction, lends a greater weight to your words, a degree of significance and importance that seems to elevate you above others.

The operative words in that last sentence are “lends” and “seems.”

Because it isn’t really true. A leadership position doesn’t actually make you a more important human being. It just feels like it. The gravitational field of the position you are in or the influence you have lends more weight to your words, but that weight is on loan. And it’s a loan that must be repaid.

Repaid how? Through the positive, productive results that derive from people acting on those words. When people follow what you say and then, in so doing, arrive at a result that enriches their lives and adds to the greater good, the weight that was conferred upon your position is transferred back out to those results. Fruits of the gravitas tree.

So, does power corrupt? Depends on how the person handles that gravitational increase. Some grow obese with their newfound authority and develop diabetes of the soul, atherosclerosis of character. Yet there are plenty of people who gain positions of tremendous influence and hold that power with remarkable grace.

Take Nelson Mandela, for instance, imprisoned for years, finally released and ultimately elected to the presidency of a nation, who then used the office to reconcile with his former oppressors rather than punish them.

Or, Roger Ebert.

It’s not often that film directors thank film critics in their awards acceptance speeches — but that’s what Patty Jenkins did. When her little independent 2003 film Monster took Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards, she used her acceptance speech to thank Ebert “for using his power so graciously.”

And lest you think it’s overstating to call Ebert’s influence “power,” consider: the man’s words carried so much weight that millions of people would choose to go buy tickets to a new film — or not buy them — based in significant part on his opinion. Which meant that with one review, he could directly influence the flow of ten of millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions, all within the window of a few days.

And because the bulk of a film’s success rests upon the box office results of its opening weekend, that influence could cause a film to be a smash hit … or a flop. Which in turn could make or break the careers of its director, producers, and stars.

That’s power. And look at what he did with it.

“Every time it looked like the film was down for the count,” said Jenkins, “Roger would speak up for it and do something to keep it alive.” At an event the following year, when Ebert was being awarded an honorary degree from the American Film Institute, he used the platform to single out the film again for praise. What a classic (and classy) move: taking a moment designed to celebrate him and using it to turn the spotlight on someone else.

That’s holding power graciously.

Immediately following his famous “power corrupts” statement, Lord Acton added this thought:

“Great men are almost always bad men.”

I don’t know that that one’s entirely true, either, but here’s what certainly is: great men and women are always flawed men and women. They are, in other words, human beings.

Genuinely great leaders acknowledge this fact and take it to heart. They understand the essence of Lord Acton’s argument, which is not that power invariably corrupts, but that the greater the position of power, the more carefully that use of power should be held to account.

On that one, I agree.

In his 1977 classic The Seven Laws of Money, author Michael Philips relates how, as a banker, he used to give himself a modest discretionary margin of error — or as he put it, “one form of petty larceny”: at business lunches, he would treat himself to a 35-cent cigar and charge it to his expense account.

After all, it was only 35 cents, right?

Then he was appointed treasurer to a foundation where he suddenly had unfettered access to millions of dollars.

Now, with much vaster amounts of money flowing through his fingers, what do you suppose happened to his little cigar habit? He eliminated it. He abruptly stopped charging his cigars to the business account and reduced his discretionary margin of error for all business expenses to five cents.

Why, now that he was in charge of substantially more money, did he cut back on his minor luxuries, rather than expand them?

Because he knew the temptation for abuse was that much greater.

You don’t have to be president of a nation, or a banker, or a nationally known film critic to have power. If you have ever been a parent, a spouse, a friend, then you have tasted power. The formula is this simple: Whenever someone else gives your words weight — that’s power.

The question is not whether we have power. We all do, every one of us.

The only question is how we hold it.

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