Greenleaf writes: …If Lord Acton was right when he said: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (and I think he was), and if some use of power is unavoidable, then what do those with tender consciences do? It seems to me they do at least two things: first, they acknowledge the potentiality for evil in the act of doing whatever they do. They acknowledge it to themselves and to all who may be touched by the use of power. Second, they make sure that the balance of power in the institution is optimal. …the institution is strongest when all the parties have adequate power for their role; it is weakest when one or two elements has too little power, because then somebody has too much and the corrupting influence of power is moving toward the absolute.
Was Lord Acton’s observation on point? If so, does it still hold today? It is helpful to note that Greenleaf defines ‘power’ in a certain way: it is a coercive force employed overtly to compel or employed covertly to manipulate. For a number of years now I have defined ‘power’ as: ‘one’s ability to act rooted in moral reflection.’ As I reflect upon Lord Acton’s observation, it doesn’t seem to matter which definition – Greenleaf’s or mine – is adopted. ‘Absolute’ power might well corrupt and do so absolutely. Given this, I think the risk continues to be present today.
To what extent do I-you-we believe that the potential for evil resides within our every action? ‘Within Our EVERY Action!’ As Greenleaf notes in his writings, awareness often brings with it disturbance; so it is with my being aware of the potential evil that resides within me and hence within my every action. Regarding the servant-first Leader, Greenleaf also asks: ‘When is serving potentially immoral?’ It is not just ‘power’ that puts me at risk for behaving immorally; it is also ‘serving.’ This is a type of double-whammy for the person who seeks to be a servant-first leader. Talk about being disturbed!
Self-knowledge is crucial; but it is not enough. Greenleaf also advises that we are to share this knowledge with ‘all who may be touched’ by our use of power and by our serving. How many of us choose to be so self-revealing (especially those of us who are role-defined leaders)?
Greenleaf also advises that each person within an institution have the ‘power’ required by his or her role. For me, this means that each person has the ‘ability to act rooted in moral reflection’ and to what extent one can act is directly rooted to his or her role (we know that by their very ‘nature’ some roles have more of an ability to act than other roles do).
‘Having the power’ also implies that one exercises the power. One chooses to act; one is powerless when one refuses to act or when one chooses not to act. How often do we blame others for our ‘lack of power’ when it is our refusal to act that is at the root of our being powerless? When is our choosing not to act potentially evil? This is also a disturbing question – a question I would rather not hold. A question that as one who espouses to be a ‘servant-first’ I am required to hold.