Reflections on Why Leaders Abuse Entrusted Power By Joanne B. Ciulla, Ph. D

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Reflections on Why Leaders Abuse Entrusted Power

By Joanne B. Ciulla, Ph.D.

Professor & Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics

Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond

Today, we generally think of leaders as special people with unique talents and abilities. Yet, when we look at the countries around the world, it is extraordinary how many are run by leaders in business and government who are personally corrupt and/or fail to respect the interests and human rights of their subjects. If you compare the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index for 2006 with the population figures of countries in 2006, you discover that almost half of the people in the world live in places where corruption thrives.1 Since Transparency International defines corrupt as “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain,” one may also assume that the leaders who run corrupt countries either are corrupt or are unable or unwilling to stamp out corruption.2 If the job of a leader is to care for the interests and well being of his or her followers, then corrupt leaders are also incompetent leaders. It is also the case that because some leaders are incompetent they are corrupt. Leadership is both a social and psychological construction. Leaders may differ across cultures in terms of who care about among their followers and their relationship to followers. Where leaders are the same is that they all share the weaknesses that come from being human.

Moral standards

People often say that ‘leaders should be held to a higher moral standard’, but does that make sense? If true, would it then be acceptable for everyone else to live by lower moral standards? Moral standards should be the same for everyone. Some people believe that democracy is the magic bullet for getting rid of unethical leaders. In theory, followers are supposed to be able to throw out leaders who do not serve their interests. However, in democratic countries that have a high level of corruption, leaders face other problems. Accusations of corruption have become a form of political assassination. This confuses the public debate about ethics. Citizens become cynical because they cannot tell if their leaders are really corrupt or whether charges of corruption are “just politics.” This results in a paradox for leaders who want to be reformers. In a corrupt system, they may have to use corrupt means to get elected. While it is rare to find leaders who use corrupt means to get elected and then go on to fight corruption, it is not impossible. However, leaders who do this often face charges of corruption from other corrupt leaders who simultaneously raise the bar of morality – by demanding that the leader be completely above the fray, while lowering the bar of morality – by attacking the ethics of a leader to keep him or her from going after corruption. Furthermore, leaders do not always gain more public trust when the press and public closely monitor them. For example, one study found that when people are forced to monitor their leaders, rather than increasing their trust in leaders, they tend to trust them less.3

The larger ethical problem for leaders comes when leaders come to believe that they are not subject to the same moral standards of honesty, propriety and so on as the rest of society. One explanation for this is so obvious that it has become a cliché – “power corrupts” – but that only tells part of the story. David G. Winter and David McClellend’s work on power motives and on socialized and personalized charisma offer a psychological account of this kind of leader behavior.4 Socialized charisma focuses on social goals, whereas personalized charisma focuses on the leader’s psychological needs. Michael Maccoby and a host of others have talked about narcissistic leaders who, on the bright side, are exceptional and, on the dark side, consider themselves exceptions to the rules.5 Others have written about how success corrupts leaders, by making them feel invincible.

E.P. Hollander’s work on social exchange demonstrates how emerging leaders who are loyal to and competent at attaining group goals gain ‘idiosyncrasy credits’ that allow them to deviate from the groups’ norms to suit common goals.6 As Terry Price has argued, given the fact that we often grant leaders permission to deviate or be an exception to the rules, it is not difficult to see why leaders sometimes make themselves exceptions to moral constraints.7 This is why we should not hold leaders to different or higher moral standards than ourselves. If anything, we have to make sure that we hold them to the same standards as the rest of society. What we should expect and hope for are leaders who will fail less than most people at meeting ethical standards, while pursuing and achieving the goals of their constituents. So when we say leaders should be held to a higher moral standard, what we really mean is that leaders must be more successful at living up to the moral standards by which we all must live, because the price of their failure is greater than that of an ordinary person.

Altruism and Self-interest

If we accept the definition of corruption as “misuse of entrusted power for private gain,” one might argue that uncorrupt means use of entrusted power for public gain. Some leadership scholars have taken this one step farther and argued that ethical leaders are altruistic, meaning they benefit others at a cost to themselves.8 Altruism is a motive for acting, but it is not in and of itself a normative principle.9 Requiring leaders to act altruistically is not only a tall order, but it does not guarantee that the leader or his or her actions will be moral. For example, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or, what I call, “Robinhoodism,” is morally problematic.10 A terrorist leader who intentionally sacrifices his life might have purely altruistic intentions, but the means that he uses to carry out his mission – killing innocent people – is at best morally questionable, even if his cause is a just one.

Great leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi appear to have behaved altruistically, but their leadership was ethical because of the means that they used to achieve their ends and the morality of their causes. We have a particular respect for leaders who are martyred for a cause, but the morality of King and Gandhi’s leadership goes beyond self-sacrifice. Achieving their objectives for social justice while empowering and disciplining followers to use nonviolent resistance is morally good and, some would say, morally awesome leadership. People often regard these leaders as great because they did the right thing, the right way, and for the right reason.

It is interesting to note what Confucius explicitly calls “altruism” the Golden Rule. When asked by Tzu-Kung what the guiding principle of life is, Confucius answers, “It is the word altruism [shu]. Do not do unto others what you do not want them to do to you.”11 The golden rule crops up as a fundamental moral principle in most major cultures.12 It tells us how to transform knowledge of one’s self-interest into knowledge of and concern for the interests of others. In other words, it provides the bridge between the extremes of altruism and self-interest.

Plato believed that leadership required a person to sacrifice his or her immediate self-interests, but this did not amount to altruism. In Book II of the Republic, Plato writes:

In a city of good men, if it came into being, the citizens would fight in order not to rule ... There it would be clear that anyone who is really a true ruler doesn’t by nature seek his own advantage but that of his subjects. And everyone, knowing this, would rather be benefited by others than take the trouble to benefit them.13

Rather than requiring altruistic motives, Plato argues that leadership is not in your immediate self-interest if you are a just person. Leadership will take a toll on you and your life. He goes on to say that the only reason a just person accepts a leadership role is out of fear of punishment. He tells us, “Now the greatest punishment, if one isn’t willing to rule, is to be ruled by someone worse than oneself. And I think it is fear of this that makes decent people rule when they do.”14 Enlightened self-interest, not altruism motivates a just person to rule. Plato sheds light on why we sometimes feel more comfortable with people who are reluctant to lead than with those who really want to do so. Today, as in the past, we worry that people who are too eager to lead want the power and position for themselves, or that they do not fully understand the moral responsibilities of leadership. Plato also tells us that while ethical leadership is not always in the leader’s immediate self-interest, it is in his or her long-term interest. (Plato goes on to say that it is in our best interest to be just, because just people are happier and lead better lives than unjust people.)

While we admire self-sacrifice, morality sometimes calls upon leaders to do things that are against their self-interest. This is less about altruism than it is about the nature of both morality and leadership. The practice of leadership is to guide and look after the goals, missions and aspirations of groups, organizations, countries or causes. When leaders do this, they are doing their job; when they do not do this, they are not doing their job. Looking after the interests of others is as much about what leaders do in their role as leaders as it is about the moral quality of leadership. When a mayor does not look after the interests of a city, she is not only ineffective, she is unethical for not keeping the promise that she made when sworn in as mayor. When she does look after the interests of the city, it is not because she is altruistic, but because she is doing her job. In this way, altruism is built into the way we describe what leaders do. While altruism is not the best concept for characterizing the ethics of leadership, scholars’ interest in altruism reflects a desire to capture, either implicitly or explicitly, the ethics-and-effectiveness notion of good leadership. One of the distinctive ethical challenges of leadership is that it takes more effort to care about strangers than it does to care about oneself and one’s family.

Nepotism and Competence

One reason why some people believe that leaders are born and not made is because the majority of leaders throughout recorded human history have been born into families of leaders. From pharaohs, to emperors, to kings, to leaders of a number of countries today, leaders have sought to keep leadership in their gene pool. This is how they look after their families, friends and, it is hoped, their constituents. Family ties also play a role in the way leaders build coalitions and enlist cooperation. Families matter when we talk about leadership because many countries in the world (democratic or undemocratic) are ruled by family dynasties. It is also easy to forget that most businesses in the world are owned and run by families.

Nepotism is a complicated problem for the ethics and effectiveness of all leaders. People who are not in leadership positions are free to aid their family members in any way they desire. One might argue that they have a moral obligation to do so. Leaders have an obligation to put the interests of their constituents ahead of their own interests and the interests of friends and families (although in many cases these interests coincide). Chinese leaders recognized the problem with nepotism a long time ago. In the words of an old Chinese proverb, ‘When a man becomes an official, his wife, children, dogs, cats, and even chickens fly up to heaven.’15 Confucius discussed at length the problem of how to balance the duties of filial piety with duties to the public and principles of merit.

When we look around the world today, we often see the tension between leaders’ obligations to family and clan and their obligations to organizations and others outside the clan. By clan, I not only include family, but friends of the leader and the leader’s family. One might argue that nepotism in business is different from nepotism in politics because a family business is private. Author Adam Bellow argues that people do not mind if leaders appoint relatives to jobs as long as they are competent.16 On the one hand, we do not think that it was unfair when William Ford was CEO of Ford Motor Company; he had a right to do so because it is his family’s business. On the other hand, it matters if an incompetent family member runs Ford because his or her incompetence would have a negative impact on a number of stakeholders.

Some might think that nepotism is only a problem in developing and/or undemocratic countries, yet, it is also common in the Western world too. Since the 2000 election there has been an explosion of nepotism in government. The 2000 election pitted a son of a president against the son of a senator. When George W. Bush won, he appointed Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell, chairman of the FEC, and Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the chief labor attorney. In addition to these appointments, Bush made the vice president’s daughter, Elizabeth Cheney, deputy assistant secretary of state and her husband chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget. (In an interesting twist, Elizabeth Chaney is now the boss of World Bank President, Paul Wolfowitz’s companion.)

If the primary obligation of the leader is to make choices based on the greatest good for the organization or state, there is, in principle at least, nothing wrong with appointing family members and friends’ family members to jobs, as long as they are the best qualified. In other words, leaders are ethical when they appoint their relatives if their relatives are best qualified to be effective on the job. When qualified people do not have equal access to compete for a job on merit, it undermines public trust and perceptions of fairness.

One intriguing question is whether we get better or worse leaders as a result of nepotism. If genes shape our dispositions, perhaps leadership might be a genetic predisposition like music or art? The Bach and Brueghel families produced great musicians and artists. Leadership may also be like a family business. Families of artists or leaders often provide the right combination of nature and nurture to foster certain talents in their children. Unlike art and music, leadership requires a complex set of social skills that involve working with strangers. Family connections and power may keep a person from developing important leadership skills. Leaders may actually develop better social skills such as persuasion, building trust, making friends, etc. when they have to make it on their own. Some leadership scholars have noticed that a striking number of leaders had one or both of their parents die when they were children. For example, Howard Gardner notes that 60 per cent of British prime ministers lost their fathers when they were young. He suggests that children who lose a parent when they are young are forced ‘to formulate their own social and moral domains.’17

The ethical problem with nepotism is not that it is wrong to care for your friends and family. In democratic societies the problem with nepotism is that it is unfair and undercuts the ideal of equal opportunity, but the bigger problem with it is that it may keep the most competent people from holding leadership positions. Nepotistic leaders treat leadership as if it is a private business rather than a public trust. Privacy (or lack of transparency) provides a fertile ground for corruption and can also hamper innovative problem solving. The physical environment thrives on diversity. We know that, when societies close themselves off from outsiders, they become neurotic, vulnerable and weak, like an inbred dog.18 As we look around the world today, we also see that in a number of cultures, the longer a leader is in power the more likely there is corruption in the leader’s administration. This is because of several things discussed earlier, the danger that success and the perks of power can make leaders believe that they are exceptions to the rules and that they can control outcomes.

Blinding Morality

We want leaders who possess strong moral convictions, but there are times when leaders’ moral convictions are so strong that they undercut both their ethics and their effectiveness. Leaders with overzealous moral convictions can be far more dangerous than amoral or immoral leaders. Consider the initial response of some members of the Catholic Church hierarchy to cases of sexual abuse. Some Church leaders held the view that they could play by different rules than the rest of society, in part because they were the “good guys.” The sexual abuse of children is one of the most heinous crimes in any society; however, some church leaders treated it differently because the molesters were men who “do God’s work.” Overly moralistic or morally misguided leaders sometimes confuse working for God with being God, usually with disastrous results. This moral self-righteousness can also blind leaders to the more mundane things that they need to do in order to be effective.

Leaders sometimes become so impassioned about their cause that they forget what they have learned in other areas of life or fail to learn or get the expertise they need to do their job. The story of the explorer Ferdinand Magellan is one such case. Magellan convinced King Carlos of Spain that the Río de la Plata in Brazil went all the way across South America and would provide a shorter route to the Spice Islands. The king funded Magellan’s voyage and Magellan sailed up the Río de la Plata. Unfortunately, the river came to a dead end. He then took his three ships down the coast of South America, around the treacherous Terra del Fuego, and then 12,600-miles across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines. When he arrived in the Philippines, he undertook a new job – spreading Christianity. Magellan began baptizing native leaders and gaining their allegiance to Spain. This meant that the enemies of a baptized leader were also the enemies of Spain. Magellan’s religious fervor became so great that he began to think that he could cure people by praying over them. His men tried to set him straight, but he would not listen to them.

Magellan decided to champion the cause of a baptized chief in an unnecessary battle against an un-baptized chief named Lapu-Lapu on the island of Mactan. He invited other chieftains to watch the battle from a distance so that he could prove the superiority of Christians. His seasoned soldiers would not fight with him so he recruited a ragtag group of cooks and other apprentices who were willing to follow him into this pointless encounter. As the historian William Manchester observes: “Now in late April of 1521, on the eve of this wholly unnecessary battle, Magellan was everything he had never been. He had never before been reckless, impudent, careless, or forgetful of the tactical lessons he had learned during Portuguese operations in East Africa, India, Morocco, and Malaya. But he had not been a soldier of Christ then.” 19.

Magellan led his band of men in small boats to the island. The plan was that when they reached the shore his ship would move in and back up the soldiers with its guns. But the ship never came and the guns never fired. Magellan was struck down while waist deep in water, weighed down by heavy armor, and unprotected by his ships that were stranded outside the reef. One of the greatest navigators in the world met his demise because he had failed to inquire about the tides before attacking the island.

The story of Magellan shows us how even brilliant leaders can believe so much in the moral rightness of their goals that they don’t listen to others or take mundane precautions to achieve their goals. This case is a dramatic way to think about the mistakes NGO leaders sometimes make, such as having earnest but unqualified volunteers keep the books or assuming that when providing meals for the homeless, it is not necessary to follow standard health procedures in the kitchen. It is also the tragic folly of political leaders who ignore history and experience in pursuit of their moral ideals. Leaders have a moral obligation to consult with experts, get their facts straight, and take care in planning. To do this, they need to have a sense of their human potential to be fallible. This is where ethics and effectiveness converge. Again, the line between being incompetent and unethical is often very thin.


This paper has explored the ways in which morality, competence and self-reflection and control are woven into the fabric of leadership, regardless of culture. While there are leaders who are evil, neurotic, or narcissistic in the world today, there are probably as many (or more) leaders who lack the skills and knowledge to lead ethically. These skills include things like knowing how to manage, create, or maintain systems of checks and balances, motivate people, communicate, formulate a vision that includes everyone in it, instill ethical norms in their staffs and constituents, manage the economy, etc. Leaders often enter government after being revolutionary or military leaders or business people. They may or may not have the mixtures of competencies they needed to run a country, especially if that country is rich in resources that are in high demand in the global marketplace.

It might seem naive or wishful thinking to argue that if leaders were more competent, they would be more ethical. Nonetheless, it is just as naive to think that greed and power are the only explanations for corruption. Human behavior is far more complex. Baring leaders with personality disorders or truly evil individuals, we should not underestimate the fact that ethical and effective leadership increases a leader’s social prestige, which can be as personally rewarding to some people as Swiss bank accounts are to kelpocrats.20 The hypothesis that I would like to see tested in future empirical studies is that leaders who know how to run a country competently are less likely to abuse the rights of their people and pillage the treasury than those who do not. I have not discussed the role of various cultural traditions in corruption in this paper. But I will say that while the cultural context of a country may encourage or facilitate bad leaders, it is difficult to imagine that the majority of people in any society would want to have corrupt leaders, especially if, as I have argued, corrupt leaders are usually ineffective.

So, Why do some leaders abuse entrusted power? While some leaders don’t want to serve the public trust because they want to serve themselves, there are other leaders who don’t know how to serve the public trust so they serve themselves. Leaders have ethically and technically difficult jobs. They are entrusted to consider the well being of more people than the rest of us. They have moral obligations to people that they do not know and maybe do not even like. Leaders everywhere fail when they lack, what the ancients called, the virtue of reverence. Philosopher Paul Woodruff describes reverence this way:

Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control – God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it he capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all. This in turn fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flaws exceeding the normal human allotment. 21


The Economist. (2006). Pocket World in Figures. London: Profile Books.


3 Strickland, T.H. (1970). “Surveillance and Trust.” Journal of Personality. 26, 200-215.

4 Winter, D. (2002). “The Motivational Dimensions of Leadership: Power, Achievement and Affiliation.” Eds. R.E. Riggio, S.E. Murphy and F.J. Pirozzolo, Multiple Intelligences and Leadership. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 196-207.

McClelland, D. (1975) Power: The Inner Experience. New York: Halsted Press.

5 Maccoby, M. (2000). “Narcissistic Leaders.” The Harvard Business Review 78.1 69-75.

6 Hollander, E.P. (1964). Leaders, Groups and Influence. New York: Oxford University Press.

7 Price, T.L. (2000). “Explaining Ethical Failures of Leadership.” The Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 21.4, 177-84.

8 Kanungo, R. and Mendonca, M. (1996). Ethical Dimensions of Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 35.

9 Nagel, T. (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Also, Ozinga, J.R. (1999). Altruism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

10 Ciulla, J.B. (2003). “The Ethical Challenges of Non-Profit Leaders.” Ed. R. Riggio, Improving Leadership in Non-Profit Organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 63-75.

11 Confucius (1963). “Selections from the Analects.” Ed. and Tr. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 44.

12 Wattles, J. (1996). The Golden Rule. New York: Oxford University Press.

13 Plato (1992). Republic. Tr. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 347d.

14 Ibid. 347c

15 Bellow, 2003, p. 95.

16 Ibid.

17 Gardner, H. (1995). Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books, 24.

18 Diamond, J.M. (1997). Guns, Germs & Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton.

19 Manchester, W. (1993). A World Lit Only by Fire. Boston: Little Brown, 276.

20 Ridley, M. (1996). The Origins of Virtue. New York: Penguin Books, see chapter 6.

21 Woodruff, P. (2001). Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 3.

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