There is a common saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. First said by 19th century politician and historian Lord Acton, these words ring true even today.

Back in 2016, the world was rocked by a massive scandal involving one of the largest banks in the world; Wells Fargo. For several hours, the then CEO Mr. John Stumpf appeared before Congress and answered a range of questions about the bank’s behavior.

In one of the largest cases of fraud, the bank, which then had assets worth over $1.8 trillion, had created over 2 million false accounts.

Once its fraudulent activities came to light, the bank fired 5,300 employees in a bid to redirect the blame.

The Congress hearing of Mr. Stumpf is a great example of how much leaders can get corrupted by power.

It is a case of a man who had managed to rise to the helm of one of the biggest banks in the world, yet one seemed to be incapable of feeling compassion for ordinary people.

As a result of actions that were his own fault, 5300 Wells Fargo employees lost their jobs, yet Mr. Stumpf did not appear to feel their pain.

While he issued an apology, he showed no remorse for the pain he caused these employees to go through.

Actually, he seemed astonished that people were making all this fuss about something he considered to be a small matter.

Mr. John Stumpf’s is not the only example of leaders who have been corrupted by their power. Enron Corporation, a US Energy Commodities and Services Company and a former Wall Street darling went bankrupt because of fraudulent accounting by its CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

Former Tyco International Ltd CEO Dennis Kozlowski and CFO Mark Swartz were sentenced to up to 25 years in jail for embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the company.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stood trial for a myriad of charges, including tax evasion, bribery, and holding his famous bunga bunga parties, some of which were attended by minors.

While these cases are extreme examples of the kind of misbehavior some leaders engage in due to their power and authority, they still bring to the fore a legitimate concern; all leaders are susceptible to being corrupted by power.

Various studies show that individuals who hold positions of corporate power at thrice as likely to engage in behaviors deemed to be negative – such as raising their voice at others, multitasking during meetings, interrupting others when they are speaking, and insulting others at work – compared to people in lower rungs of the corporate ladder.

In addition, other studies show that individuals who have just moved into positions of power are highly susceptible to losing their virtues and ethics.

While most people get into positions of power by exhibiting actions, behaviors, and traits that are meant to serve the interests of others – such as sharing, collaboration, empathy, fairness, and transparency – these traits start to fade once they get into positions of privilege or once they start feeling powerful. The more powerful one gets, the more likely they are to engage in selfish, rude, and unethical behaviors.

According to Dacher Keltner, psychology professor at the University of California, author of The Power Paradox: How We gain And Lose Influence, and the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center, this phenomenon is referred as the “power paradox” and is the topic of his book above.

Dacher has studied the phenomenon in a wide range of settings: in professional sports teams, in the United States Senate, in colleges, and in a myriad of other professional settings.

In each of these settings, Dacher has noticed that people rise to positions of power as a result of their good qualities. Unfortunately, the more powerful the people become, the more their behavior and qualities worsen.

Dacher also found out that this shift from good behavior to misbehavior upon the assumption of power can happen surprisingly quickly.

In one of his experiments, which he referred to as the “cookie monster” experiment, Dacher brought volunteers into his lab in groups of three and assigned them with a writing task.

He randomly selected one of the three people to be the leader of the group.

About half an hour into their writing task, Dacher then brought a plate of four freshly baked cookies – one for each person, and an extra cookie – and placed them on the table, in front of everyone.

As expected, in all the groups, each of the group members took one cookie, leaving the extra cookie in the plate.

The question was, who would take the extra cookie, knowing that doing so would deny the others of the chance of enjoying the extra treat?

Dacher found that in most cases, the person would had been selected to be the group leader took the extra cookie.

In addition, the person selected to be the leader was more likely to smack their lips while eating, eat with their mouths open, and eat with crumbs falling on their clothes.

Other studies show that wealth and status have an effect that’s similar to that of power.

In one experiment, Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff of UC Irvine found that people driving cars that are fairly inexpensive – Plymouth Satellites, Dodge Colts, and so on – always stopped at crosswalks to allow pedestrians to cross.

On the other hand, people driving fairly expensive cars, such as Mercedes Benzes and BMWs only gave way to pedestrians 54% of the time, despite the fact that not giving way to pedestrians was actually breaking the law.

Another survey of workers across 27 countries found out that people with more wealth are more likely to find it acceptable to engage in behaviors that are considered to be unethical, such as tax evasion or bribery.

And yet another 2015 research by Danny Miller and Xiaowei Xu found that chief executives with MBAs are more likely to engage in behaviors that increase their personal compensation at the detriment of the company compared to those without MBAs.

The behaviors of leaders like John Stumpf, Silvio Berlusconi, Jeffrey Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz can also be explained through the findings of a 2013 study carried out by researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

The research found that power is capable of impairing our mirror-neurological activity. The mirror-neurological activity influences our ability to associate with other people and understand them.

This impairment of the mirror-neurologic activity has been christened the hubris syndrome by British physician and parliamentarian David Owen. According to Owen, hubris syndrome is a disorder caused by the possession of power.

In an interview for an upcoming book, Rasmus Hougaard, Jacquelin Carter, and Louise Chester from the Potential Project talked to one CEO who was very candid about the problem of power and corruption.

According to this CEO, being in a position of leadership comes with a constant pressure, the need to make difficult decisions that have a huge impact on other people, and the heady activity of constantly coming up with strategies and guiding their implementation.

All, this can end up making leaders less empathetic and less concerned for the welfare of others.

According to the CEO they spoke to, after being at the head of a large global consumer goods brand for over a decade, this CEO noticed that he had started distancing himself from being too close to other people, to the extent that he even started pulling back in his relationships with his children.

This was something that was so unlike him. Prior to becoming CEO of this company, he was a person who was known for his empathy. He was a person who cared about how others felt and was always concerned about the feelings of others.

Yet, after spending some time heading such a huge company, the power of being in such a position took its toll on him, and he stopped being empathetic in his thinking and decision making.

Rasmus, Jacquelin, and Chester heard variations of this in many of their interviews.

The point here is that while power does not necessarily make one want to be less concerned for the feelings of others, the constant pressure and responsibilities that come with being in a position of power can rewire your brain circuitry and make you less empathic.

While all the studies and examples quoted above show that there is a high likelihood of leaders getting corrupted by power, the good thing is that this is something that can be avoided, or even reversed for leaders who have already been corrupted by power. The key to this is compassion


Very often, people confuse compassion with empathy.

Whereas empathy refers to the act of trying to feel the emotions of others and experience them as if they were your own, compassion refers to the intent to do something to ensure the happiness and well-being of other people.

To make this easier to understand, I am going to use an illustration.

Let’s say, for instance, that you have encountered someone who is feeling pain after a breakup.

In this case, being empathetic means trying to put yourself in this person’s shoes and feel the pain they are going through.

You try to imagine what it feels to undergo a breakup and the emotions that come with it.

On the other hand, being compassionate means trying to do something that will alleviate this person’s pain, by for instance taking them out or doing something else that will help cheer them up.

From this example, you can see that compassion is a lot more proactive than empathy.

It is something that can be cultivated into a habit.

Leaders who have lost empathy as a result of the pressures and responsibilities that come from possession of power can counter this loss by making compassion a habit, which will in turn make them better leaders and make them more concerned about the impact of their decisions on others.

As a compassionate leader, you care about more than profits and performance. You also need to have a genuine interest in the welfare of your employees.

However, this does not mean that you should become too nice a leader or that you should be a people pleaser who always gives people what they want.

Instead, it means being capable of giving them what they need and is good for them, such as tough feedback. It is about making the decision to nurture those below you to their full potential.

As a compassionate leader, you are ready to invest time into those you are leading and ensure that they achieve success for themselves.

You are ready to support their growth and do everything within your capabilities to get rid of any hurdles in their path to success.

Being a compassionate leader strengthens and mentors those below you.

It gives them psychological safety and stability, which are very crucial if you want to create a healthy working environment. It also allows your people to grow into great leaders themselves and can also lead to increased job satisfaction for your employees.

According to the Compassion Workplace Model developed by Roffey Park, compassionate leadership involves five main aspects:

  • Awareness of the needs of others.
  • Being accepting and non-judgmental to the perspectives of others.
  • Being tolerant towards personal distress and showing resilience.
  • Being empathetic in all your professional interactions.
  • Being responsible and accountable for all the outcomes of your team, whether good or bad.

Today, more than ever, people are starting to recognize the importance of compassion in leadership.

A 2012 study by researchers from the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, found that leaders who show compassion are more likely to be seen as stronger and are more likely to have engaged followers.

Several other studies have also found out that in companies where the leaders are compassionate, there are higher rates of collaboration, more trusting and committed employees, and lower turnover rates.

One survey of over 1,000 leaders carried out by researchers from the Potential Project found that 91% of leaders believe compassion is an important ingredient for good leadership, and 80% reported that they would like to become more compassionate, but do not know how to go about it.


Having seen the importance of compassion in leadership, how then, can leaders apply it to their leadership?

Below are some practical ways to help you become a more compassionate leader:

Apply Compassion at All Times

Compassion is not a destination, it is the way, at least according to an old Chinese proverb.

Basically, this means that compassion is not something you achieve after doing certain things. Compassion is something you need to do every time.

Therefore, as a leader who wants to enhance their compassion, you need to apply compassion to all your interactions and ask yourself how you can genuinely be of benefit to others. It is something you need to do all the time, and not just some of the time.

Once you make it a habit to apply compassion in all your interactions, it becomes a compass that guides you actions, attention, and intentions.

Every time you interact with a client, colleague, stakeholder, friend, or family member, ask yourself how you can make sure they leave with something good out of the interaction.

Look for Opportunities to Show Compassion

Aside from applying compassion at all times, you should also actively look for opportunities to show compassion. Former Cisco CEO John Chambers provides a good example of how to do this.

Aware of the impact of compassion on the organization, Chambers came up with a system that ensured that in the event that an employee was suffering illness or experiencing a severe loss, he would be notified about it within 48 hours, regardless of where in the world he was.

Once he was informed of such a situation, he would then write a personal letter to the employee and offer his support to the employee.

This simple thing instilled an appreciation for compassion and care throughout the organization.

While you don’t need to adopt Chambers’ system, as a business leader, you should make it a habit to proactively seek opportunities to be compassionate to someone who needs the compassion.

This will earn you great respect from your followers.

Be Ready to Listen and Learn

Sometimes, when people are in a position of leadership, they see themselves as the sole authority in everything. However, just because you are a leader doesn’t mean that you know everything there is to know about your business.

If you are a good leader, you have probably built a circle of smart and intelligent people around you.

However, these people will be of no use if you do not listen to them or ask for their opinions on various matters.

Take advantage of their wisdom and smarts by allowing them to share their expertise and skills. The illusion that you know it all because you are a leader is one of the fastest ways to kill compassion.

A good way to put this into practice is to use the Emergenetics Profile.

Asking your employees to take the profile will help them to realize their thinking and behavioral preferences. From this, you will be able to discover what their strengths are, and where their greatest expertise lies.

From there, you can then start seeking their contribution in projects that are aligned with their strengths and preferences.

Understanding your employees’ profiles will help you identify employees who can make meaningful contribution to the company’s growth and allow you to use their strengths in the best way possible.

Slow Down

Life in the corporate world is very hectic, particularly when you are the CEO of a huge company.

You can easily get wrapped up in all the tasks, responsibilities and routines that come with being a leader to the extent that your become overwhelmed and distracted.

In such a state, it becomes harder to pay attention to the welfare of those around you.

By slowing down, you will become more compassionate because slowing down allows you to observe those around you and notice what they are going through.

Having the time to observe others also makes it easier for you to disentangle from your beliefs and see things from the other person’s perspective.

Slowing down also makes it easier for you to notice any tensions that could be derailing your employees and take action to ease these tensions.

Be Open to Change

To be compassionate, you also need to be open to change.

As a compassionate leader, sometimes it might be necessary for you to change your leadership policies, make changes to your lifestyle, embrace new strategies that could be beneficial to your company, and so on.

All this is impossible if you do not work with an open mind.

If you want to enhance your compassion, get in the habit of challenging yourself regularly and trying to push your boundaries. Don’t get stuck in the comfort zone.

Always look for ways to make your team members feel appreciated and valued, set the right examples to inspire your team, look for opportunities to treat them with affection and kindness, and generally mold yourself into a leader that other people would love to follow.


As you can tell from the examples of John Stumpf, Jeffrey Skilling, Silvio Berlusconi, Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz, leaders often get corrupted by their power and engage in unethical, self-serving behaviors, without the slightest concern about how the impact of their actions on others.

Sometimes, this happens due to the feeling of invincibility that comes with being in a position of power, while sometimes, it happens as a result of the pressure and responsibilities that come with leadership.

The good thing is that leaders and people in positions of power can avoid being corrupted by their power by embracing compassion. Compassion is all about being proactive in ensuring the happiness and wellbeing of other people.

As a leader, you can enhance your compassion by applying compassion in all your interactions, proactively looking for opportunities to show compassion to those who need it, being ready to listen and learn, slowing down and taking the time to observe those around you, and being open to change.

Power Can Corrupt Leaders. Compassion Can Save Them

Comments are closed.