Science Brief

The essential tension between leadership and power

Why power corrupts — and how to prevent it.

By Jon K. Maner and Charleen R. Case

Jon K. ManerJon K. Maner is a professor of psychology and director of the social psychology program at Florida State University. His research investigates motivated social processes from evolutionary and social psychological perspectives and covers topics in a variety of domains including close relationships, power and leadership, rejection and prejudice. Maner is the recipient of the 2007 Sage Young Scholar Award and the 2013 APA Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology. He currently serves as an associate editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He received his BA (1995) and MA (1997) degrees from the University of Virginia, and his PhD from Arizona State University (2003). Author website.


Charleen R. CaseCharleen R. Case is a graduate student in social psychology at Florida State University. She received her BA in psychology and anthropology at Miami University in 2010 and her MS in social psychology at Florida State University in 2013. Her research explores hormonal and cognitive processes that underlie the attainment and maintenance of social relationships, with an emphasis on social processes within group hierarchies and coalitions. She is a member of the Experimental Evolutionary Psychology Lab, where she works under the mentorship of Jon K. Maner. Author website.



Group living is full of trade-offs and conflicting social motivations. One particular kind of trade-off that has profound implications for group living involves the nature of leadership. Throughout human history, groups have demonstrated a tremendous need for leaders. In times of war, famine and other crises, leaders have helped guide groups toward desirable outcomes. Leaders help group members coordinate their actions with one another, establish and prioritize their goals, and pursue the goals that are most important to the success of the group.

Leaders, however, are typically endowed with power, and power can corrupt (Kipnis, 1972). Power is operationally defined as having control over resources, which affords the ability to influence others by bestowing or withholding those resources (Magee & Galinsky, 2008). Instead of wielding their power for the greater good, some leaders may be tempted to use their power in self-serving ways. Although groups often need leaders to achieve important goals, providing leaders with power can make followers susceptible to exploitation. 

The recent scientific literature has identified a variety of ways in which power can lead to negative behaviors. Power causes people to become disinhibited, increasing the likelihood that they will act on their (sometimes selfish) impulses, rather than thinking carefully about what is best for the group (Galinsky, Gruenfeld, & Magee, 2003; Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). Power can cause people to objectify others and to see them as a means to their own ends (Gruenfeld et al., 2008). Powerful people tend to be bad at taking the perspective of others (Galinsky et al., 2006) and, at the same time, they are good at satisfying their own needs and goals (Slabu & Guinote, 2010). Power also heightens sexual goals, which can set the stage for inappropriate advances toward colleagues and subordinates (Kunstman & Maner, 2011). With all of these transformative effects of power, it perhaps comes as no surprise that many leaders seem to behave in apparently corrupt ways. 

When the desire for power corrupts

Our lab’s recent research has focused on one reason that may help explain some instances of corruption: Once given a taste of power, many leaders are highly motivated to protect it. That is, although leaders are responsible for promoting the welfare of their group, leaders may instead be more motivated to enhance their personal capacity for power and domination. Consequently, leaders may behave in ways designed to protect their power, even when those actions can damage the group’s well-being and hinder its goals. Our research suggests that the desire to maintain their position atop the hierarchy can be so strong that many leaders are willing to engage in questionable and unethical behaviors to protect it. 

The desire for power reflects a fundamental human motive, one that we share with many other primate species (Boehm, 1999; de Waal, 1982; Sapolsky, 2005). Consequently, leaders commonly experience a source of tension: They are tasked with making decisions that benefit the group, but many leaders are also highly motivated to protect or enhance their own personal power. One implication of this tension is that leaders may come to feel imperiled by members of their group who could be perceived as a threat to the leader’s power. For example, a CEO might feel threatened by a mid-level manager who is smart and skilled and consistently makes excellent managerial calls, because these things could signal that maybe the mid-level manager is a better bet to run the company than the CEO. Talented subordinates may be perceived as posing a threat to leaders because they are capable of gaining respect and support from other group members. 

In several studies, our work has shown that some leaders do, in fact, feel threatened by skilled subordinates and behave in ways designed to suppress them. In one set of studies, for example, research participants were brought to the lab and assigned to assume a leadership role over a group of other research participants (Maner & Mead, 2010). As part of their role, they were given power: Participants had the ability to direct the work of the other group members, to evaluate them at the end of the session and to give or withhold monetary rewards from them based on those evaluations. This created a strong sense of power, albeit a temporary one limited to the laboratory environment. Importantly, in one condition, leaders knew that their power was irrevocable; nothing could cause them to lose their powerful role in the group. In a second condition, leaders were told that, depending on everyone’s performance during the session, the roles in the group could be changed. A third group of participants was assigned to a control condition in which all group members had equal say over the tasks they would be performing, and in which monetary rewards for being in the study would be divided equally. 

After assigning participants to their role in the group, we investigated ways in which leaders might try to protect their power. In one study, participants were privately given information critical to performing well on the group task. To help the group succeed, the obvious strategy would have been to share this information freely with all group members. Indeed, this was the response among leaders who knew their power was secure, as well as among control (equal authority) participants. Leaders who knew their role could be lost to another group member, however, withheld that information and refused to share it with others, because doing so would have allowed the other group members to perform well and to possibly outshine the leader. Leaders worried about losing their power strategically withheld information as a way to protect their role in the group, even though doing so would undoubtedly cause the group as a whole to perform less well on the task. 

Notably, this selfish behavior was observed only among leaders with a strong desire for social dominance — leaders who enjoyed the feel of power and authority. Those who lacked such a desire shared information freely in order to serve the group, even though doing so could have jeopardized their own personal position of power. 

In other studies using similar experimental procedures (Maner & Mead, 2010), participants were again assigned to a leadership role in a group and were told that one of the group members was exceptionally skilled at the task the group would be performing. The optimal strategy for enhancing group performance would have been to embrace that person’s skill and to give that person the opportunity to play a sizable and influential role in the task. However, leaders with a strong desire for power did just the opposite. In one study they assigned the skilled subordinate to a role within the group that carried almost no influence at all over the task and assigned less competent people to carry out the task. This prevented the skilled underling from demonstrating his or her skill. In a second study, dominant leaders actually attempted to exclude the skilled subordinate from the task entirely, voting to ostracize him or her from the group. Ironically, those leaders chose to exclude the highly talented group member, while at the same time voting to include a relatively incompetent group member. Although having an incompetent person on one’s team would not help the group perform well, it would ensure that the leader would appear especially capable by comparison. Thus, leaders were willing to sacrifice the good of the group in order to ensure that their subordinates would not be able to outshine them and possibly take over their leadership role. Among leaders with a strong desire for dominance, the desire to protect their power overwhelmed the desire to help the group perform well. 

In another set of studies, we investigated whether leaders who felt threatened by a skilled subordinate might attempt to closely monitor and control that subordinate as a way of preventing him or her from surpassing the leader (Mead & Maner, 2012). In one study, dominant leaders who were worried about losing their power chose to work in the same room as a skilled subordinate, even though it was explained to them that working independently and in different rooms would help the group perform better. In two other studies, dominant leaders opted to sit closely with a skilled subordinate so that the leader could keep a close eye on what the subordinate was doing. Such behaviors were not intended simply to watch and perhaps learn from the skilled subordinate, because leaders did not monitor the subordinate when their power was secure. The only ones who closely monitored the skilled subordinate were those leaders who were worried about losing their power within the group. Thus, dominant leaders sought proximity to skilled subordinates as a way to monitor and reduce the threat they posed. Dominant leaders may seek to keep their friends close, but apparently they also seek to keep their “enemies” closer.

One critical function served by leaders is facilitating cooperation and coordination among group members (Van Vugt, 2006). However, despite the fact that leaders are typically expected to promote positive relationships among subordinates, some leaders may instead create divisions between their followers. Although an individual subordinate may pose a threat to a leader’s power, that subordinate would be much better equipped to appropriate a leader’s position with the support of other group members. Thus, in another line of research, we investigated whether dominant leaders interested in protecting their power might try to prevent talented subordinates from forming relationships with other group members, even though doing so could ultimately detract from the well-being of the group as a whole (Case & Maner, 2013).

Indeed, in several experiments, dominant leaders sequestered skilled subordinates and prevented them from bonding with other group members. In one experiment, leaders limited the degree to which a talented subordinate could communicate directly with other group members. In a second experiment, leaders sought to physically isolate a talented subordinate by placing him or her in a room alone, away from other group members. In a third experiment, leaders went beyond simply limiting interaction among subordinates, specifically preventing a talented subordinate from socializing with others on a close, interpersonal level. These findings suggest that leaders who feel threatened by skilled group members sometimes seek to isolate those individuals in order to prevent them from forming alliances and, ultimately, as a means of protecting their own power (Case & Maner, 2013).  

Easing the tension between leadership and power 

In demonstrating ways in which leadership can go awry, our research also suggests ways of promoting positive leadership behaviors. For example, we observed negative leadership behaviors only when leaders were worried about losing their role in the group. Even highly dominant leaders made decisions designed to benefit the group when their position was secure. Other research suggests benefits to holding leaders accountable for their actions (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999). Taken together, these insights suggest that a stable system in which leaders are secure but accountable could provide a favorable context for group success. Group hierarchies tend to be least stable during initial group formation or following changes to the composition of the group (Anderson, John, Keltner, & Kring, 2001). Events that threaten the legitimacy of those in power or enhance the legitimacy of the less powerful can also destabilize social hierarchies. During such times, groups might benefit from increasing accountability and reducing the capacity for exploitation among powerful individuals.

Although we saw substantial evidence for corrupt behavior among leaders with a taste for dominance (a desire for authority and control over others), we saw no such evidence among leaders more interested in having prestige (a desire to be respected and liked). Across all our studies, whereas dominant individuals sometimes prioritized their own power over the good of the group, prestige-oriented individuals consistently prioritized the group’s well-being. Individuals who are primarily interested in prestige may ultimately make better — or at least more benevolent — leaders than individuals simply interested in having power.

Finally, our studies provided evidence that even highly dominant leaders prioritized the good of the group over their own personal power when their group was in competition against another group (Maner & Mead, 2010; Mead & Maner, 2012). The presence of intergroup competition changed leaders’ mindset from one of “me versus you” to one marked by “us versus them.” Intergroup competition can cause leaders to see highly skilled subordinates as valuable allies rather than as enemies to be suppressed. Groups may therefore benefit from the presence of (non-hostile) forms of intergroup competition. 

Conclusion

Groups can provide enormous benefits to their members. Yet, a group’s welfare can suffer tremendously when leaders abuse their power. The abuse of power can quickly transform groups from being sources of strength and opportunity to sources of threat and exploitation. 

The research described here provides insight into how, when, and why leaders sometimes behave in corrupt ways. Many instances of corruption can be understood as reflecting an important motivational conflict that plagues leaders — the conflict between doing what’s right for the group versus what will protect their own power. 

A valuable long-term goal is using this knowledge to reduce the potential for corruption, for example, by reducing perceptions of threat among leaders, by increasing levels of oversight and accountability, and by avoiding the selection of leaders who display too strong a hunger for power.

Acknowledgements

The authors recognize Nicole Mead, PhD, assistant professor of marketing management at the Rotterdam School of Management, for her work on the research described in this article. The authors are also indebted to the National Science Foundation (BCS-0842620) for their support of this research.

References

Anderson, C., John, O. P., Keltner, D., & Kring, A. M. (2001). Who attains social status? Effects of personality and physical attractiveness in social groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 116–132.

Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest. London, England: Harvard University Press.Case, C. & Maner, J. K. (2013, under review). Divide and conquer: When and why leaders create divisions among their subordinates.

de Waal, F.B.M. (1982). Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among apes. New York: Harper & Row.

Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068-1074. 

Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Magee, J. C. (2003). From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 453-466. 

Gruenfeld, D. H, Inesi, M. E., Magee, J. C., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Power and the objectification of social targets. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 95, 111-127.

Slabu, L., & Guinote, A. (2010). Getting what you want: Power increases the accessibility of active goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 344-349. 

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265-284.

Kipnis, D. (1972). Does power corrupt? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 33-41.

Kunstman, J., & Maner, J. K. (2011). Sexual overperception: Power, mating goals, and biases in social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 282-294.

Lerner, J. & Tetlock, P.E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 255-275.

Magee, J., & Galinsky, A. (2008). Social hierarchy: The self-reinforcing nature of power and status. The Academy of Management Annals, 2, 351–398.

Maner, J. K., & Mead, N. L. (2010). The essential tension between leadership and power: When leaders sacrifice group goals for the sake of self-interest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 482-497.

Mead, N. L. & Maner, J.K. (2012). On keeping your enemies close: Powerful leaders seek proximity to power threats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 573-591. 

Sapolsky, R. M. (2005, April 29). The influence of social hierarchy on primate health. Science, 308, 648–652.

Van Vugt, M. (2006). Evolutionary origins of leadership and followership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 354–371.


The views expressed in Science Briefs are those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or policies of APA.