About a year ago political scientist and writer Brian Klaas began making the rounds on my favorite podcasts The Bulwark, Deep State Radio and The New Abnormal promoting his recently published book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. As he answered questions related to the long-purported belief that power corrupts and what, if anything can be done to keep corruptible individuals away from the levers of power I couldn’t get enough. That’s because several years ago I experienced first hand what it’s like to suffer at the hands of a tyrannical leader. I couldn’t wait to read Klaas’s book and promptly checked out his cool podcast.
Before long I used Overdrive to borrow a copy for my Kindle and eagerly went to work reading it. Employing a Malcom Gladwell-esque style Klass recalls his interviews with a wide array of individuals ranging from an African dictator to a retired American general tasked with running the occupation of Iraq to countless subject matter experts. By the end of the book Klaas showed us not only corrupt leaders looks like but how they’re able to rise to power. He also weighed in on what possible strategies we can employ to make sure they don’t always seize power and if they do, how we might reign them in.
According to Klaas, the worst tyrants, be they CEOs, third-world despots or even some out of control head of an HOA posses in varying degrees what he calls the “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellism.
Narcissists feel they’re naturally entitled to positions of authority and are willing to engage in risky behavior like breaking laws, regulations and norms because they see themselves as too clever to suffer the consequences. Typically, most dictators are eventually dethroned because their reckless misrule ends up pissing off enough, or at least the wrong people. Many a CEO lost his/her job by making heedless decisions that brought shame upon the company name .
Psychopaths, immune from experiencing empathy, are able to abuse others to pursue their agendas. An unscrupulous potentate will happily jail and torture dissidents while a toxic executive won’t hesitate to humiliate a subordinate during a meeting for a perceived shortcoming, especially if he/she is seen a potential rival or attempts to speak truth to power.
Lastly, aspiring Machiavellis will hijack whatever resources that come with their positions to further advance themselves. A power-crazed HOA president will target residents he doesn’t like with endless parades of citations. One East African strongman appointed a surprisingly number of women to his rubber stamp parliament, not because he shared their feminist values but because he wanted to send Western nations and NGOs the message he was a progressive ruler and therefore deserved of larger aid packages. Larger aid packages he could line his own pockets with.
One way to reduce the number of bad leaders is to ensure less corruptible individuals wind up in positions of authority. Applicant pools need to be widened as to attract as many capable individuals as possible, not just those with a pathological desire to control and abuse others. Hoping to attract a more kindler, gentler candidate pool a municipality in New Zealand produced a light-hearted recruitment video in which two police officers, played by women of color, pursue a purse snatcher. During their on foot pursuit they even stop for a moment to help an elderly woman cross the street. At the end when they finally apprehend the thief it’s revealed he’s just a dog. The goal is to attract helpful sorts, not Rambos or Dirty Harrys.
In the starkest of contrasts, thanks to minuscule applicant pools the demand for law enforcement officials in rural Alaska is so great police departments are resorting to drastically lowering standards and hiring convicted felons. Even those who’ve committed assaults, rapes and attempted kidnappings have been hired by short-staffed departments desperate to fill their ranks. (Despite the offenders having committed those crimes in the very communities they’re now entrusted to protect.)
Lastly, we must find ways to keep the high and mighty in line. Corporate America spends billions to closely monitor even its most loyal of low level employees through surveillance cameras, recorded phone lines and computer software to log keyboard strokes and website usage. But little, if anything is done to ensure high level executives follow the law, act responsibly or refrain from using their authority to pursue personal vendettas. With a disturbing percentage of CEOs psychopaths, and in all likelihood members of the dark triad, ways must be found to hold them as accountable as their lowest rung employees.
For all the reasons I’ve already outlined this outstanding book should be required reading for anyone who interacts with the powerful in any sector be it private or public. Please consider Corruptible highly recommended.