Ep 147: Does power corrupt?
There is a saying that power corrupts, so is there any hope for those in leadership? Two business leaders openly discuss the challenges and pitfalls of leadership, the danger of power and offer a surprising pathway to success.
Our guests: Dr. Jenny George is CEO of Converge International - a leading Australian health and well being solutions provider. Before that Jenny was Dean of the Melbourne Business School and she has also served on the boards of a variety of not-for-profit entities.
George Savvides was CEO of Medibank, for 14 years until 2016. He has over 25 years experience as CEO of Australian and New Zealand healthcare companies. He’s now a partner of the consulting firm Sodia and serves in a variety of board roles.
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Bigger Questions asked in the conversation
I thought we’d test you on how much you know about the effects of money and power according to academic research.
Power changes you
Social researcher Paul Piff argued that those with higher socioeconomic status, those with money and power, tended to act more like selfish jerks. As business leaders - those who have power and influence - what do you make of that research? It doesn’t paint those with wealth or power in a particularly favourable light?
Perhaps it’s hard to be self-aware about this. But George you led a multi-billion dollar enterprise - was empathising with ‘ordinary’ employees difficult?
Jenny - you had an experience where you had power and then you didn’t - you were CEO but stepped down to continue in a different role in the same organisation. Can you tell us what happened?
Lord Acton famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Was Lord Acton correct?
So power can change people and corrupt people. Does this mean that power is bad?
The Bible’s answer - servant leadership
Contrasting uses of power are described in the New Testament part of the Bible. In the Gospel of Mark, which is one of the four biographies of Jesus’ life that we have, Jesus uses the term, lording over them, to describe how some rulers exercise authority - Mark 10 verse 43.
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.
We’ve talked a lot about the corrupting influence of power - so this idea of ‘lording over’ it doesn’t seem like a particularly surprising response by those in power?
But is that vision of leadership tempting? To ‘lord it over others’, to use your power to get what you want at the expense of others?
But doesn’t it work? There was a famous business leader, Al Dunlap, nicknamed the Chainsaw, who wrote a best selling best-selling manifesto titled Mean Business. He made a very successful career out of business brutality. So isn’t being mean not really a corruption, just the way things should be done? Be mean to get ahead?
Well Jesus offers a contrasting and alternative vision for leadership and how to use power. After outlining the leadership vision of the rulers of the land, he says in Mark Chapter 10, verse 43,
43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
But can servant leadership really work in the real world?
What difference does the Christian faith make to the way you lead?
The Big Question
So Jenny and George, does power corrupt?