Are You Chasing Power?
- Wednesday, February 04, 2009
It’s true: Power corrupts—but it only corrupts the corruptible. It only corrupts those who are bent on chasing power. As Plato once warned, “He who seeks power is not fit to hold it.” If we refuse to be seduced and corrupted by power, then we will avoid falling into its trap.
The Right Use of Power
Sir Winston Churchill served as the prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II, England’s darkest days. In mid-1940, the war was going badly. The Nazi forces under General Erwin Rommel were advancing, prompting the British Expeditionary Force to evacuate 300,000 troops from France. Another 13,000 troops were cut off and forced to surrender to the Nazis at St. Valery-en-Caux. The French government collapsed and the Germans marched into Paris. Churchill also knew (though the news was kept from the British public) that the Germans had sunk a British ship that was evacuating troops from France, killing 2,500.
These events weighed heavily on Churchill’s mind, and the burdens of his office turned the once-jovial prime minister into an ill-tempered tyrant. A few lines from Churchill’s speeches to the House of Commons in May and June of 1940 reveal his dark and depressed outlook. “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. . . . This nation must prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. . . . The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
It was in the depths of these stressful days that the British prime minister opened a letter from his wife, Clementine. Dated 27 June 1940, the letter read:
I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know.
One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner. . . . I was told “No doubt it’s the strain”—
My Darling Winston—I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be. It is for you to give the Orders. . . . With this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. You used to quote: —“On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme.” [“One can reign over hearts only by keeping one’s composure.”]. .
You won’t get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality—(Rebellion in War time being out of the question!) Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful
Churchill took his wife’s advice to heart and began treating his subordinates with more “urbanity, kindness, and . . . Olympic calm.” Years later, reflecting on those dark days of mid-1940, just before the onslaught of the Battle of Britain, Churchill wrote in his memoirs, Their
Finest Hour, “I readily admit that the post [of Prime Minister] was the one I liked the best. Power, for the sake of lording it over fellow-creatures or adding to personal pomp, is rightly judged base. But power in a national crisis, when a man believes he knows what orders should be given, is a blessing.”7 Winston Churchill learned that power, in order to do good, had to be used in a good way—not to intimidate, but to inspire and motivate.
At his inauguration as president on January 20, 1989, the senior President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, placed his hand on the Bible that had once been owned by George Washington himself, and he took the same oath of office, word for word, that Washington had taken 200 years earlier. Then Mr. Bush turned to the American people and said:
"We meet on democracy’s front porch, a good place to talk as neighbors and as friends. For this is a day when our nation is made whole, when our differences, for a moment, are suspended. And my first act as President is a prayer. I ask you to bow your heads:
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