Recent headlines in the news have brought to the forefront the need for me to discuss the topic of power, namely the abuse of power.
In 1887, British politician Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
The key phrase Acton used was "almost always," to which he had plenty of empirical evidence to back up his general belief, yet astutely left himself room for rare exceptions to the contrary.
So let's talk a little about power and why it likely leads to corruption.
When people see a person caught in a crime, it isn't unusual for them to express shock and disdain. "We would never," they would proclaim, "do such a terrible thing."
But is their statement entirely true? For how would they know for sure they wouldn't do such a thing if they aren't in this person's position? If given the same circumstances, would they fall into the same trap? What are the chances that this criminal is sufficiently different from the rest of the population?
In other words, is it possible that people don't do bad things not because they are necessarily good people but that they simply don't have the opportunity? Lord Acton would seem to agree with this sentiment.
I don't blame those who have this cynicism. They probably have seen it too many times in life where bad people succeeded. When morals aren't considered a factor in effectiveness, wouldn't it make sense to only focus on the tactical and technical aspects? There are books written where morality isn't even a factor but how cunning the strategies must be. To consider morality would seem naive.
Fortunately, Sun Tzu disagrees. Of the five factors of victory in war, the very first is the Tao (or Way): the alignment of the leader's interests with the people's interests. In contrast, corrupt people in power don't share the interests of others.
Furthermore, Sun Tzu discusses the winning five attributes of the leader: wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, bravery, and discipline. Abusive people possess little to none of these attributes since they cannot go beyond their impulses and selfishness.
When people with power abuse their position, they can nonetheless be effective for some time. They are able to continue their abuse as long as they benefit the right people around them. They share the interests of a relative few, not all.
However, as the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. Historical records prove that no matter how powerful, entire dynasties were toppled over and over again, never mind one abusive individual. For example, Sun Tzu mentions in The Art of War two dynasties that started out benevolent but their own people enabled their destruction after the rulers became corrupt:
"In ancient times, the rise of the Yin dynasty was due to I Chih, who served the house of Hsia; the rise of the Chou dynasty was due to Lu Ya, who served the house of Yin." Sun Tzu
"The leader who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure." Sun Tzu
Their success lasts because they are "the nation's treasure." A treasure isn't something that people simply tolerate but something they don't want to lose and want to hold on to as long as they can.
The forgotten law of power isn't held by the leader who wishes to stay in power as long as possible -- which is rather quite petty and common -- but that power is remarkably held up by countless followers who wish for him or her to stay in power.
Yet playing the role of the leader isn't easy:
"It is important for a leader to be calm and remote, upright and disciplined." Sun Tzu
In what ways are leaders extraordinary? Leaders don't call themselves out as leaders, and so they are hard to identify. They get satisfaction from the results achieved, not the praise or recognition from others. They can pass tests of hardship as competently as tests of pleasure. Throwing punishment or luxury in their way would matter little. They are still human and indeed feel perturbed and tempted ever so slightly, but they too strong to be taken.
It is such strength that is required to win without fighting and achieve lasting peace. It is such wisdom that followers believe they did it themselves and even enemies feel they have won, too. It is such benevolence that no war is possible around the world in due time.