Potential pitfalls of leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Debra Shattuck
  • 28th Maintenance Group commander
"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This phrase, attributed to Lord John Acton, carries an important caution for leaders -- if they are not careful, the power that leaders wield may cause them to lose focus on the positive impacts they can make and, instead, do things they might not otherwise have done.

How often have you read accounts of leaders who used (and abused) the power they had for personal gain or pleasure? Many of these individuals had unblemished track records until they reached a level of authority that somehow caused them to place their personal interests above those of their office and those they led. How do you avoid becoming one of these fallen leaders?

Avoiding the "power corrupts" pitfall as a leader means focusing on others and not on you. A wise leader remembers, "It's not about me."

Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State, was known for his shrewd insights on leadership. In the book, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, Oren Harari compiles some of Powell's perspectives on leadership. In one adage, Powell reminds those with authority that, "Leadership is not rank, privilege, titles or money. It is responsibility."

A wise leader does not focus on the prestige of his or her position; a wise leader focuses on how to wield power (authority) for the betterment of those being led to achieve a specific mission or objective.

A common problem that impacts individuals as they move up the military rank structure or the corporate ladder is that they begin to believe rules, regulations, and values they expect others to uphold do not apply to them. That's when the corruptive influence of power can begin to take hold.

One wise person put it this way, "A good leader is the one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way." If you want to be an effective leader who does not become corrupted by the power of your office, continually remind yourself that you are responsible for modeling the positive traits you expect from others. If you want others to sacrifice on behalf of a unit or organization, then you must sacrifice for that unit or organization. If you want others to adhere to particular customs and courtesies, or standards of dress and appearance, then you must model those customs and courtesies, and dress and appearance standards.

"Do as I say, not as I do," is the direct opposite of effective leadership. Those who say one thing and do another are succumbing to the corruptive influence of power.
Leadership is a somewhat abstract concept. There is no cut-and-dry checklist on how to lead.

There are as many leadership styles as there are leaders. But one thing that effective leaders have in common is that they take care of the people they lead and they do not allow the perceived benefits of their rank or office to lull them into believing they are better than those they lead.

They do not seek glory or credit for the achievements of their organization. They don't covet power for power's sake.

Former President Ronald Reagan echoed what many other effective leaders have known, "It is amazing how much gets done when nobody cares who gets the credit."
Be an effective leader. Don't allow the corruptive influence of power to change you into someone you don't want to be.