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Leadership vs. Power

Abraham Lincoln said, “If you want to test a man’s character—give him power.” George Washington passed that test. Twice in his life he walked away from great power. He demonstrated that leadership is something that you give—not take—and that power must be used responsibly.

King George III asked Benjamin West, his American painter, what George Washington would do if he prevailed in the Revolutionary War. West replied, “He will return to his farm.” The British monarch incredulously said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” On December 23, 1783 Washington did just that and retired to Mount Vernon—despite the encouragement of many to stay in power and despite the willingness of Americans to crown him king. 

Four  years later, he would do it once again. In 1787, Washington was coaxed back to Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention. While there he provided the leadership necessary to get the fractious delegates to complete the work of designing a new constitution. Afterward, in 1788, he was elected the first president of the United States. He reluctantly ran for a second term in 1792, but he refused to run for a third term, setting a precedent that lasted 150 years. He then retired once again to his farm.

Washington died in 1799, the year that Napoleon Bonaparte became the ruler of France. In contrast to Washington, Napoleon could not acquire enough power. His legendary lust for command drove him to take over much of Europe. “Power is my mistress,” he once claimed, “I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.” Years later, having lost all power and living in exile, Bonaparte lamented, "They wanted me to be another Washington."

History is rife with stories of people who abused their power. But abuse of power is not just reserved for politicians and tyrants. Managers, spouses, parents, peers, and many others can be equally guilty. It is said that power corrupts, but more often than not, it is the corrupted individual who is attracted to power. When people seek leadership roles because of the lure of dominance over others, it reveals uncertainty, lack of confidence, and fear. It is a feeling of inferiority, sometimes called a Napoleon Complex, that drives someone to control other people and to micromanage their surroundings. Today we may call such a person a control freak. Science fiction author, Robert Heinlein noted, “Anyone who wants to be a politician shouldn’t be allowed to be one.”

When we look at Abraham Maslow’s heirarchy of Human Motivation (Survival, Safety, Social, Esteem, Fulfilment), we see that someone who hungers for power is stuck in the second to bottom level, or Safety. A true leader has self-esteem and self-confidence and does not seek power to bolster his or her feeling of self worth.

A true leader is motivated by a goal for the common good of his group, whether that group is a company or a country. If you find yourself attracted to leadership, consider your motivation. Are you driven to share your gift of understanding in the endeavor of achieving a goal, or are you motivated by the perks of position and power?

Are you cut out to be a leader? Consider the words of John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”