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August 17, 2017

The power paradox


August 17, 2017

Does power really corrupt people? Why is it that people who acquire power after huge sacrifices succumb to the dictates of power and lose it to something very trivial? 

In Pakistan, we have had leaders who went through trials and tribulations to make it to the top only to be subdued by circumstances of their own making. Their humane qualities earned them respect and popularity in the beginning but after acquiring power they considered ‘power’ to be a windfall and were eventually doomed. 

Rising to a position of power has its own charms and some inherent predicaments. Power not only lures one into a thinking of infallibility and indispensability but also deprives one of true human spirit and originality.  It tests one’s nerves and character to such an extent that some sages call it a silent killer of one’s faith and conscience if it is not tamed at the outset.  Unless one remains constantly vigilant, power tends to corrupt anyone regardless of age, gender and race.

Dacher Kelter, a professor of psychology at the University of California, has written an informative and thought-provoking piece in the Harvard Business Review on the paradoxical nature of power. For the sake of brevity, I will paraphrase his main arguments here before drawing some broad conclusions. 

Kelter says that people generally attain power through various traits and actions such as empathy, collaboration, fairness and sharing. But once they feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, these qualities begin to fade and people start engaging in rude, selfish and unethical behaviour. Kelter contends that the consequences of abusing power not only tarnishes the reputation of the powerful but also undermines their opportunities for influence and creates stress and anxiety among their colleagues.

In order to outsmart the power paradox, he suggests that executives and rulers should practice gratitude, empathy and generosity in order to sustain power and make it subservient to their inner being as a means to achieve lofty goals in life.

Empathy requires putting oneself in other people’s shoes. Arrogance begins to recede when one looks at a particular situation from another person’s perspective. Our rulers need not make tall claims and hollow speeches about the pressing problems that people face in hospitals, courts, roads, and in the places where they live and work. They should just imagine how they would feel and react had they been going through the zigzag of life every day, pushed and pulled by selfish people and tortured by unbearable circumstances – both natural and man-made.

And the powerful should not forget the fact that power is both transient and elusive. History has proved that no one on earth is indispensible. Even powerful empires like the Roman and the British empires had to recede to their original lands.

Ayaz, a trusted friend of Mehmood, would walk into his solitary room every night just to remind himself of his past life that was full of miseries compared with his present-day status. He would put on his old cloak and would address himself in front of a mirror in these words: “Ayaz, let the benign head and heart of Mehmood and the glittering things around him not make you forget your origin, your journey and your destiny. You may forget the time but time will not forget you”.

Unlike Ayaz, our rulers think they are indispensible and irresistible. From Ayub Khan and Z A Bhutto to Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, every leader went through similar phases of a dramatic rise to the top, emotional and intellectual insulation from the people and the subordination of national interests to personal aggrandisement.

Paradoxically, they happened to be their own enemies as they traded their humility with arrogance. Surrounded by sycophants, who feed on flattery and disinformation about the ground realities, our once-powerful leaders failed to constantly reform and refine their visions to reflect public aspirations and use power as a means to an end and not an end in itself. 


The writer teaches at the Sarhad

University. Email:[email protected]


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