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Are You Chasing Power?

  • Pat Williams Author, What Are You Living For?
  • Updated Feb 09, 2009
Are You Chasing Power?

During my junior year at Wake Forest University, I had my own sports interview show, much like the three different weekly radio shows I have in Orlando today. I got to interview many of my sports idols, including Ted Williams, Arnold Palmer, Harmon Killebrew and Roger Maris. But my favorite interview was with a man who was not a sports figure at all: Dr. Billy Graham. The evangelist was on the Wake Forest campus to speak at a chapel service, so I brought him into my studio to talk about sports. He turned out to be very knowledgeable and had played a lot of baseball in his youth. He was personally acquainted with quite a few athletes, and he gave me one of my best interviews ever.

Over the years, I have met and spoken with Dr. Graham a number of times, and I was honored to speak at two of his crusades in Chicago and Syracuse. My respect for him has deepened over the years. While working on this book, I was pleased to have as a guest on my Orlando radio show Michael Duffy, who coauthored a book with Nancy Gibbs, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House. The book explores Dr. Graham’s unique place in history as a friend and adviser to 11 presidents, from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush.

Dr. Graham counseled and prayed with presidents during times of crisis. He talked to President Eisenhower during the integration battles in the South—and he also answered Eisenhower’s question, “How can I know that I’m going to heaven?” He knelt in prayer with both LBJ and Nixon during the era of Vietnam and campus unrest—and he dealt with Johnson’s question, “Will I see my parents in heaven?” President Clinton even used Dr. Graham as a back-channel courier to convey a message to Kim Il Sung, urging the North Korean dictator to allow UN inspectors into his nuclear sites.

I asked Michael Duffy why Dr. Graham befriended the presidents. Duffy replied, “Billy Graham was not tempted by money. And he was not tempted to be unfaithful to his wife. But when Nancy Gibbs and I interviewed him, Dr. Graham told us very candidly that his weakness was power. We all have different areas of temptation and struggle, and that was Dr. Graham’s weak spot. He was drawn to power and he enjoyed being around powerful people.”

Duffy told me that Dr. Graham admitted crossing the line from spiritual adviser to political adviser in his friendship with Richard Nixon. This, Graham said, was a big mistake. When he realized that Nixon had been dishonest about the Watergate affair, Dr. Graham realized that he could be deceived and seduced by political power, and that this weakness threatened his witness as an evangelist. From then on, Dr. Graham made a commitment to serve purely as a spiritual counselor, and to leave politics to the politicians.

The fact that Dr. Graham recognized his susceptibility to the lure of power—and took steps to guard against it—only increased my longstanding respect for him. Few people have the strength of character to resist the seductive charms of power. Most people, given access to the most powerful man in the world, could not help being corrupted by it.

Power, like fire, is a very useful tool—and one that can easily bemisused.

The Sweet Smell of White Marble 

Power is the ability to influence or control other people so that they do what you want. In its most beneficial sense, power is one of the tools of leadership. A wise leader can use the personal power of persuasion to inspire a group of people to move together as one in order to achieve a lofty goal. But power can also take the form of raw force and intimidation, as in a totalitarian dictatorship.

Why do people chase power? The reasons behind our obsession with power are rooted in our common human needs and drives. Some of us seek power in order to inflate our egos and make us feel significant. Some seek power out of a desperate need to be known and admired by others. Some of us seek it because we are basically insecure, and controlling others makes us feel safe. Some seek power as a means of attaining the other three false values that people chase: money, fame and pleasure.

Political commentator Cal Thomas observed the following in his book Blinded by Might:

From the beginning, men and women have sought power. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve wanted the power to be like God.  China’s Mao Zedong said power comes from the barrel of a gun. Lord Acton’s often-quoted remark about power is that it is corrupting and when it becomes absolute, it corrupts absolutely. . . .  

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. People may have wealth, position, and fame, but unless they have power, many of them believe their lives are incomplete. Power cannot only seduce, but can also affect judgment. It can be more addictive than any drug.1 Biographer Anne Edwards agrees. In her book The Reagans: Portrait of a Marriage, she observed, “Power is not only an aphrodisiac but also a hard-core addiction.”2

John A. Huffman, Jr., senior pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, recalls the time when he learned of a contagious disease that had spread throughout our nation’s capital. The disease is called “Potomac fever.” He learned about it from the late Admiral William Lukash, who served as White House physician under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. Once a person is infected with Potomac fever, he or she becomes a power addict.

Lukash explained how Potomac fever works. A young woman, fresh out of college, applies for a low-level White House job. Once hired, she’s thrilled at the privilege of simply walking those white marble corridors where so much history has been shaped. She doesn’t care about power.

She is just happy to be there, carrying out even the most menial of duties in the White House.

Time passes. She acquires greater responsibilities—and as she is promoted, she begins to want more power. The first time she rides aboard Air Force One is a thrill. But soon, on future trips, she joins the competition for seats closer to the front, closer to the president and the seat of power. Eventually, the ambition for power becomes boundless and all-consuming.

That, Lukash told Huffman, is how Potomac fever gradually takes over a person. Huffman adds that another Washington insider, former Senator Mark Hatfield, had another term for Potomac fever. He called it, “The sweet, sweet smell of white marble.”

In his book Getting Through the Tough Stuff, pastor Charles Swindoll tells about a trip he took with his friend Charles Colson, the former chief counsel for President Richard M. Nixon. Colson was convicted of charges related to the Watergate scandal and spent time in federal prison. As they traveled together, Swindoll asked Colson, “Why would anyone want the burden of being president of the United States? I wouldn’t want that job for all the money in the world!” Colson smiled knowingly and replied, “One word, my friend: power.”

Charlemagne (Charles the Great, A.D. 742–814) was king of the Frankish Empire and the most powerful ruler of the Middle Ages. After conquering Italy, he was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800. In January 814, after spending weeks in the forest on a hunting expedition, Charlemagne was stricken with pneumonia. On January 28, after taking Holy Communion, Charlemagne died at age 72, and was buried in Aachen Cathedral.  

Two centuries later, Otho of Lomello, Count of the Palace at Aachen during the reign of Emperor Otto III, claimed that he and the Emperor had opened Charlemagne’s tomb and found the late king’s body. According to Otho, Charlemagne sat upon his throne, his crown upon his head, his scepter in one hand, and his other hand resting on the pages of an open Bible. Otho said that Charlemagne’s finger pointed to a passage in the New Testament: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story. I don’t know if Otho of Lomello actually did find the body of Charlemagne as he claimed. But there are two features of the story that I know to be true: First, everyone who holds power today will someday be dead. Second, there is no amount of power that is worth the price of one’s own soul.

Power is a Trap 

Saddam Hussein was born in the Iraqi village of Tikrit, the same village that, 900 years earlier, was the birthplace of Saladin, the renowned Muslim sultan who defeated the Christian crusaders and conquered Palestine. Saladin was, in fact, one of Saddam’s two great heroes; the other was Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin. According to UN weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, Saddam saw himself as “the incarnation of the destiny of the Arab people.” He believed that he had been chosen by Allah as a new Saladin, a man who would wield the limitless power of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to, once again, defeat the “Crusaders” from the West (America), conquer Palestine and live forever as a hero of the Arab people.

Reporting for Time magazine, Johanna McGeary wrote that Saddam “appears to have not so much a strategy as a concept of grandeur. He is never satisfied with what he has. He operates by opportunity more than by plan and takes devastating risks if the gambles might expand his power. He believes in the ruthless use of force.”3

Saddam Hussein’s ruthless ambition for power, coupled with his country’s vast petroleum resources, made him one of the most dominant and dangerous figures in the Middle East—but also one of the most pathetic. In a 2002 essay on Saddam Hussein for The Atlantic Monthly, Mark Bowden revealed a surprising picture of the dictator as a prisoner of his own enormous power:

Saddam is a loner by nature, and power increases isolation. . . . One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant’s choices are the narrowest of all. His life—the nation!—hangs in the balance. . . .

Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second or third hand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.4

We are tempted to ignore the lessons of Saddam Hussein’s power grubbing existence. We think, “Well, Saddam Hussein was unhinged! He was a dangerous madman! His life has nothing to teach me.” But as pastor Rick Warren reminds us, “The world is full of little Saddams. Most people cannot handle power. It goes to their heads.” Remember, power chasers come in all shapes and sizes. If the circumstances are right, if the temptation is great enough, anyone—including you, including me—can be seduced by the lure of power.

In his book Jesus Loves Me, pastor and author Calvin Miller describes the trap he calls “the power addiction”:

"One of the hardest things to relinquish is our need to run things: power! We all seem to crave it at times. Why? It allows us to control others, but our appetite for power wars against Jesus’ love.

Desiring power we are most unlike Jesus! Power would allow us to avenge ourselves on those who mistreat us. How differently Jesus handled this appetite. Should we ever stand before Pilate, we would want to see how he would look in a crown of thorns. Let us put Herod on the cross and ask him how he likes it.

Want power? Be careful! What horrors are bound up in the power addiction. . . . We break our addiction to power by relinquishing it. Thus we are kept from the perverted need to love ourselves."5

Leadership expert John Maxwell says that the lives of those who seek power tend to follow a predictable pattern. The power chasers may start out with good intentions and the desire to use their power for good. So they work hard to acquire power and in time they achieve a measure of it. But a little power is a dangerous thing. Attaining some power, they soon want more. They become obsessed with preserving and expanding their power—and they feel justified in using it. After all, the ends justify the means, don’t they?

And that’s when corruption sets in. A person who went into business, government, education, the arts or even the ministry with the best of intentions has become a person who pursues power for power’s sake. He has become a person who is willing to step on people, to destroy careers and reputations, to do whatever it takes to maintain and expand his power.

And that is the downfall of the power chaser. His abuses are revealed for all the world to see. The corrupt CEO, politician or minister is exposed. His corruption may even land him in prison. He loses everything— his reputation, his family, his self-respect and especially his power. “Inevitably,” Maxwell concludes, “anyone who abuses power, loses power.”  

The Lesson of the Ring 

As Cal Thomas noted earlier, English historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” More recently, American novelist William Gaddis (author of AgapAgape) replied, “Power doesn’t corrupt people. People corrupt power.”

And American science fiction writer David Brin added, “It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.”

This principle is illustrated in the fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. The tale revolves around an epic quest to destroy the Ring of Power before its evil force can be unleashed, resulting in destruction and enslavement throughout Middle Earth. In the story, we meet several characters who come in contact with the Ring of Power, and the way they respond to the Ring tells us a great deal about them.

When the wizard Gandalf is offered the Ring, he responds, “Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength!” Gandalf knows that even though his intentions are good, he is vulnerable to the seduction of power. He refuses the Ring so that he will not be corrupted by it. The elf-lady Galadriel is also offered the power of the Ring—and she is greatly tempted. All she has to do is take the Ring and she would become infinitely powerful—“Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!”

But she wisely refuses the Ring and escapes its corrupting power. Several characters in the book come under the spell of the Ring. Gollum, who once possessed it, is now possessed by it. The Ring is his obsession. It haunts him day and night. The power of the Ring has not only corrupted Gollum but has also truly driven him insane. 

Another tragic character is Boromir, a noble and well-intentioned man who was tempted by the power of the Ring. He wants to use the power of the Ring to do good—but his obsession with power leads him astray and destroys him.

The only character who is fit to possess the Ring is Frodo, a humble hobbit of the Shire. He has no ambition to seize power. He has no desire to control the lives of others. To him, the power of the Ring is not a prize, but a weight—a crushing burden he wishes to rid himself of as soon as possible. Tolkien wants us to know that the responsibility of power is so heavy that only the backs of the humble can carry it.

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:

My Darling,

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:

Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: 'Use power to help people.' For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord. Amen."

It was a beautiful expression of Mr. Bush’s understanding of why he had been entrusted with so much power. And it was an expression of his commitment to use the power of his office for good, for God and for others—and not to serve or glorify himself.  

John Maxwell once observed, “The best leaders feel motivated by love and compassion for their people.” And Regina Brett, columnist for The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), put it this way: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Lech Walesa is the former trade unionist and human rights activist who led Poland out from under the shadow of Soviet domination. By profession, he was a shipyard worker. On August 14, 1980, Lech Walesa scaled the wall of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, and led the shipyard workers’ strike—a peaceful rebellion against Communist oppression. Out of that strike came the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) Free Trade Union. For his role in the formation of the union, Walesa spent nearly a year in prison, plus another four years under house arrest—but he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the prize money to Solidarnosc.

Lech Walesa proved himself to be a man of power—and a man of peace. Before the Gdansk Shipyard strike, he was an ordinary shipyard worker, with only a vocational school education. Yet he sparked the movement that brought down the Iron Curtain—and he rose to serve as president of Poland from 1990 to 1995. Looking back over those achievements, he reflected, “Power is only important as an instrument for service to the powerless.”

Great leaders inspire and motivate; they do not terrorize and intimidate. They use their power for the people, not against them. That’s why great leaders are so rare. Those who have the greatest skill at acquiring power do not always have the temperament and values for using power wisely and compassionately. Power chasers tend to be power abusers — and people abusers. A great leader uses power to serve the powerless, not to serve himself.

Excerpted from What Are You Living For? by Pat Williams (Regal, 2008). Copyright 2008 by Pat Williams and Jim Denney. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


Pat Williams is Senior Vice President of the Orlando Magic, the NBA team he co-founded in 1987. He has been involved in professional sports for more than 45 years and has been affiliated with NBA teams in Chicago, Atlanta and Philidelphia, including the 1983 World Champion 76ers. He is one of America's top motivational speakers and is the author of 45 books, including Go for the Magic, How to Be Like Jesus, The Paradox of Power, Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders, The Warrior Within, and The Pursuit. Pat lives with his wife, Ruth, in Winter Park, Florida. He is the father of 19 children, including 14 adopted from 4 foreign countries.