Understanding the Perks of Power

Jewish sources have long understood a basic truth; positions of leadership bring with them an increased risk of abusing power.

by Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Despite their portrayal in the media, the recent spate of sexually charged salacious episodes has less to do with lasciviousness and more do to with abuse of power. Prurient as they appear on the surface these incidents, starring an assortment of politicos, corporate executives, sports heroes, and religious officiants, should not be dismissed as the work of sexually deviant outliers, but need to be understood instead as the result of unchecked leadership, something much closer to home for many of us.

I want to be clear; I am not suggesting that these offenses are not egregious sexual crimes. But I do believe that, lubricity aside, defining them solely as shameful sex scandals misses the point.

Jewish sources have long understood a basic truth; positions of leadership bring with them an increased risk of abusing power. This does not mean that those who aspire to leadership are evil by nature, or that every leader is necessarily an Anthony Weiner, Lynndie England, or Brett Favre, in waiting. But the holding of power – whether as a department head or governor, a soldier or performance icon, a classroom teacher or a clergyperson – increases the likelihood of abusing that power. And clearly, as Lord Acton famously pointed out, the more power, the greater the chances for abuse.

According to the Bible, when the Israelites asked Samuel about establishing a Jewish monarchy, he pulled no punches in detailing the consequences: “This will be the practice of the king … He will take your sons … for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves … He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage … He will take your male and female slaves … He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves …” (I Samuel 8). In a nutshell, leadership brings with it the increased likelihood of mistreating others.

Perhaps the classic case in point is the tale of David and Bathsheba, history’s most arrant example of abuse of power. (If it’s been a while, spend a few minutes rereading the story – II Samuel 11:1-12:7.) As an individual David was a man of considerable accomplishment. He was bold and courageous, and a deeply sensitive human being as well; a poet, who purportedly authored 150 psalms. But, as a leader, David thought nothing of taking advantage of his power. He misused his privileged position to pursue personal ends, convinced that he could manipulate circumstances and control resources and outcomes in order to get away with the most deplorable behavior. Like many leaders, David believed that society’s rules simply did not apply to him.

David, however, was neither amoral nor antisocial. His actions, while despicable, must be understood as a function of his leadership, not of psychopathy or sexual deviance. Indeed, when the prophet Nathan confronted him with a parable about a rich man’s unjust treatment of an impoverished neighbor, David was appropriately appalled. He lacked neither a moral compass nor a conscience. As a leader, however, he was unable to get out of his own way; his proclivity for abuse stemmed from the very power he wielded.

Many will recall a more contemporary example of this link between leadership and abuse of power drawn from the case of President Bill Clinton. In his 2004 interview with Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, Clinton was asked how he might explain his behavior during the infamous Lewinsky scandal. The former President responded with the now infamous words, “… just because I could.” Like scores of powerful leaders before and since, Clinton was not unaware of his transgression, nor did he aver that his behavior was somehow ethically acceptable. Indeed, he characterized his actions as “morally indefensible.” Mr. Clinton’s problem was not about sexuality, but about the abuse of power that accompanies leadership.

Exploitations that manifest in inappropriate sexual activity often grab headlines and titillate the curious. But they are far from the only examples of leadership dysfunction. Anyone who has ever signed a paycheck, written a reference, approved a vacation, diagnosed a patient or counseled a parishioner runs the risk of abusing power. Representatives of the military and the police, professors, youth leaders, parents, even celebrities, anyone who holds power or who is perceived as holding power has an increased likelihood of misusing the very leadership that defines them. As Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University wrote in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010), “Whenever you have control over resources important to others – things like money and information…” you have power. And with power comes the increased likelihood of abuse.

To contravene such proclivities classical Jewish teachings call for systemic controls designed to counterbalance the risks of abuse inherent in leadership. The Torah’s restraints on the monarch, for example, stand out as an unapologetic attempt to circumscribe the power often associated with executive privilege. “He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses … And he shall not have many wives … nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching (torah) … Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life … Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows …” (Deut. 17:16-20).

The Torah’s pragmatism in this regard is significant. Rather than impose an unrealistic standard on leadership, an idyllic paradigm of perfection, the text begins with an assumption that the risk of abuse is endemic to the holding of power. The goal then is to contain its nefarious impact not to alter human nature.

The Deuteronomic limitations on leaders assume an enhanced resonance in light of an unprecedented study conducted by former University of Kentucky psychiatry professor Arnold Ludwig. Over a period of eighteen years Ludwig studied more than 1900 twentieth-century political leaders. He uncovered a number of striking links between human rulers and alpha male primates. Common to both is what he calls the “Perks of Power,” tangible benefits that accrue to the ruler (simian and human), simply by virtue of being the leader. These include: increased sexual access (which in humans results in more extramarital affairs and polygamous relationships), more offspring, greater access to resources, and increased deference and respect from followers (Arnold Ludwig, King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership). Ludwig’s analysis is focused on political leaders but the evidence clearly suggests that similar conditions obtain in the corporate arena, the military, as well as sports and entertainment, among several other sectors.

When the Torah’s strictures are refracted through the lens of Ludwig’s research, the conclusions are striking. Leadership has its privileges and those privileges often include wealth and access. Left unchecked they lead to exploitation, abuse, and misconduct. Precisely because leadership is a condition precedent to abuse, protective measures are required. In proscribing sexual and economic excesses (the very same areas that Ludwig found to be most prone to abuse by leaders), and by insisting that the leader avoid haughtiness, specifically the flaunting of privilege over those (s)he is expected to serve, the Torah both acknowledges that abuse is inherent in the leadership process and affirms that such abuse can be palliated, that is, relieved without ever being fully cured.

Yet, as the case of King David makes clear, even divinely mandated restrictions on leadership often prove ineffective at curbing the abuse that comes with human power. For this reason, Jewish communities have historically organized in ways designed to forestall such excesses. Referred to in the Talmud and subsequent Jewish sources as the system of ketarim (crowns), power is divided across a tripartite framework of religious, educational and political leaders. By circumscribing authority and insisting that no single leadership type (keter) can amass too much power, the “ketaric” system seeks to attenuate abuses associated with leadership and its perquisites.

It would be naïve to suppose that either legislation or systemic stricture can eliminate the risk of abuse. And, as recent high profile examples have made painfully clear, Judaism’s insights into these matters have not prevented Jews from being among the most egregious offenders. But there is much to be learned from classical Jewish teachings on leadership ethics that might contribute, however modestly, to the tikkun (repair) so desperately needed. The most effective place to begin is so obvious it is often overlooked – the training organizational leaders receive throughout their careers.

The highly regarded statistician, Nate Silver is fond of pointing out that when it comes to prognostication, the very awareness of a particular proclivity is an important first step in overcoming associated biases. The same might be said of leaders, from politicos to clergy, from CEOs to first responders. To avoid the untoward excesses frequently found among leaders one must first be sensitized to the fact that exercising power brings with it an increased likelihood of abuse. This is not just true for some, it is true for all. Abuse is not the province of a deviant few. It is a risk that must be recognized by everyone who holds power. No long-term solution is possible absent such an acknowledgment ab initio.

The training and development of leaders is a multi-billion dollar industry today. It includes everything from graduate degree programs to industrially-based leadership institutes, from executive MBA’s to highly exclusive, by invitation only think tanks. Organizations, public and private, large and small, provide training for their leaders. Google estimates more than 397,000 separate entries under the heading of “leadership training” alone. It will hardly be surprising to know that only a fraction of these give serious treatment to leadership ethics in general, and to the issues associated with the use and abuse of power in particular. Sadly this is true not only in the corporate and for- profit arenas, but in the social sector, including the Jewish community, as well. Rarely, if ever do programs purporting to be about leadership training ever discuss the risks of power abuse in leadership. Rarer still are programs of Jewish leadership that help those who hold power to recognize that even when they are unaware of doing so they may be taking advantage of their positions.

Rabbi Tarfon in the mishna of Avot (2:16) cautions that while ours is not to finish the job, we are not free to desist from trying either. While the abuse of power is bigger than any single member of the Jewish community, many of us are in positions to insist that leadership-training programs deal with this issue head on. Doing so would be an important first step.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.