Do We Want Powerful Leaders?

CAMBRIDGE – A trend toward greater authoritarianism seems to be spreading worldwide. Vladimir Putin has successfully used nationalism to tighten his control over Russia and seems to enjoy great popularity. Xi Jinping is regarded as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, presiding over a growing number of crucial decision-making committees. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recently replaced his prime minister with one more compliant with his drive to concentrate executive power. And some commentators fear that if Donald Trump wins the US presidency in November, he could turn out to be an “American Mussolini.”

Abuse of power is as old as human history. The Bible reminds us that after David defeated Goliath and later became king, he seduced Bathsheba and deliberately sent her husband to certain death in battle. Leadership involves the use of power, and, as Lord Acton famously warned, power corrupts. And yet leaders without power – the ability to cause others to do what we want – cannot lead.

The Harvard psychologist David C. McClelland once distinguished three groups of people by their motivations. Those who care most about doing something better have a “need for achievement.” Those who think most about friendly relations with others have a “need for affiliation.” And those who care most about having an impact on others show a “need for power.”

This third group turned out to be the most effective leaders, which brings us back to Acton. But power is not good or bad per se. Like calories in a diet, too little produces emaciation, and too much leads to obesity. Emotional maturity and training are important means of limiting a narcissistic lust for power, and appropriate institutions are essential to getting the balance right. Ethics and power can be mutually reinforcing.