The Paradox of Power: The Corruption of Leaders

Posted on September. 14. 2019

“Nearly all men can stand adversity,
But if you want
to test a man’s character,
give him power.”
Abraham Lincoln

BY Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian
That “power corrupts” has become a common truism is beyond dispute. Lord Acton (1660-1748) had a longer version of this: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What is baffling is the paradoxical statement. To wield power is natural for man’s strongest instinct is survival. Power is a coveted resource to provide the means for a better life.
So, why do we have a “paradox of power? It sounds confusing. Simply put, power is a positive quality to have; corruption is a negative thing to pursue. Both are opposite tendencies from the societal standpoint. And yet, the assumption that something positive (e.g., power) is producing something that is negative (e.g., corruption) is true, albeit contradictory. It sounds akin to an oxymoron expression, a combination of incongruous words (such as “cruel kindness”). A paradox is, therefore, “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet it is perhaps true.” For example, most scholars agree to the fact that “power corrupts” and this creates the paradox. The “good” begets the “evil”.
It is interesting to note that the ancient Greeks were quite cognizant of that fact that a paradox has the ability to take us outside our usual way of thinking. They combined the prefix para (meaning “beyond” or “outside of”) with dokein (“to think”) to form paradoxos, an adjective meaning “contrary to expectation.” In the 1500s, English speakers borrowed it from Latin and created paradox.
As most of us are aware by now, Mr. Appo Jabarian, the Executive Publisher and the Managing Editor of Armenian Life and others have valiantly written many scatting editorials, exposing the corruption of leaders in the Armenian Orthodox Church both in the Homeland and in the Diaspora. Suffice it to say that we do have issues once in a while related to some dubious clergymen to resolve. However, compared to other Christian denominations, we should never forget that our Armenian clergymen conduct themselves with more ethicality and integrity. We are proud of them. They are our spiritual leaders during good and bad times. This article will explore how leaders are at risk of being corrupted by power and what makes it happen.
When an individual ascents for power of social status as a leader, he or she would run the risk of being corrupted. Power corrupts a leader by distorting his or her perception of reality. Studies have indicated that these distortions include how the leader goes through a period of growing personal aggrandizement, arrogance and loss of control; progressively, the leader shows contempt for subordinates, suspicion and arbitrary cruelty; gradually the leader separates himself or herself from others and chooses advisors who always agree; power seduces the leader; he or she becomes intoxicated with it; and finally he or she becomes addicted to power that can be used either for personal gains or for organizational benefits or for both; and the leader experiences a total lack of awareness that any corruption is happening at all.
In a religious setting, when we bow to our church leaders, it goes to their head more often than not. When we kiss their hand, it goes to their head. When we revere them, it goes to their head. When we submit to them, it goes to their head. They begin to do things that we do not question. We submit to them. Pretty soon, they act like gods! So, not only power corrupts them, we as their loyal followers to blame as well for we fail to nip it in the bud when they go astray.
Does this sound like we have reportedly the same type of leadership in our Holy Etchmiadzin and at some of its satellite dioceses? Many concerned Armenians have voiced their complaints that our corrupted leaders have become blinded by power, refuse to listen even to constructive criticism, lack spiritualism and pursue the joy of materialism and the indulgence of worldly pleasures. Notably, three prominent church leaders are accused of serious wrongdoings. In a word, they are branded as corrupt individuals. These embattled clergymen are His Holiness Karekin II (The Catholicos of All Armenian), ABP. Hovnan Derderian (Western Diocese) and Arch. Yezras Nersisyan (Russia Diocese).
There is also a recent example of grabbing power from the community without resorting to democratic procedures. In no time, power will begin to corrupt its leaders. A case in point is the August 15, 2019 announcement by Dr. Viken Hosepian and Arch. Hovnan Derderian of the formation of a pan Armenian council whose leaders will represent the entire Armenians of the Western USA. As you would agree, a democratic pan Armenian council should be elected by the votes of the Diaspora Armenians living in the Western USA. When it comes to democracy, the part cannot be equal to the whole.
According to many reliable sources, the above-mentioned church leaders seem to be oblivious of their participation in corruption. They have become blinded by power and have been angry at those who alert them of their mistakes. In a word, they think they have become untouchables. Pretty soon, the entire organization becomes dysfunctional. We are no longer oriented to the common good, but to meeting the corrupted leaders’ wants and needs. In due time, their little empire will decline and eventually fall only to be rebuilt by yet another set of leaders who may very well repeat the process of becoming victims of power by being engulfed in the influence of corruption.
As the corrupt leaders continue with their modus operandi, we all become their collaborators if we choose to stand by the wayside and watch their corrupt operations. The Talmud says something to the effect that if someone sees a crime taking place and does nothing, he would become an accomplice. Thanks to Mr. Appo Jabarian’s great investigative journalistic talents, a movement was launched to cleanse our holy sites of some of the Armenian Church leaders who had been corrupted by virtue of their high positions.
The question as to why and how does power corrupt leaders is a complicated psychological process as we have briefly discussed it in the previous sections. Naturally, the fundamental core of leadership is power and influence. Leaders must use their power to get things done for the organization.
Power is seductive and the taste of power is intoxicating. Under these circumstances, leaders become susceptible to the attractive gains accrued from corruption. Corrupted leaders will dream of extra money, which would mean extra amenities, and extra enjoyment of material life. Those leaders who succumb to the use of power for personal gains may have had in the beginning a shaky sense of morality or were weak in ethics and integrity to begin with.
But wait, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the leaders who have been corrupted by power can be instrumental in advancing their organization as well. Let us explore how this happens. According to most psychologists, we have two types of power: Socialized Power and Personalized Power. I shall later add a third power and call it “Shared Power”.
The first type of power is called Socialized Power. This kind of power is used by a leader to benefit others. We hope that all of our church leaders have this kind of power in mind and that they primarily have the best interests of their churchgoers. The vast majority of Armenian clergymen fall into this ethical category.
The second type of power is called Personalized Power. It appears that the church leaders use this form of power for personal gains. They are totally corrupted by power and pursue a secular life for personal enjoyment. The three prominent clergymen accused above, unfortunately, fall into this category if the allegations of their misconduct are true.
It is important to note that the preceding two types of power (Socialized Power and Personal Power) are not mutually exclusive, though. There is a third type of power which is the combination of Socialized Power and Personal Power. Let me called it “Shared Power” for lack of a better term. A leader can use his or her power to benefit others and at the same time gain personally.
The Shared Power type of power is a win-win proposition. All of the members of the church benefit from their leader wielding power. However, the leader gets into a collisions course when Personalized Power dominates the leader gains at the constituent’s expense. Compared to Personalized Power, the Shared Power is more acceptable by society for the valiant effort is to benefit both the followers as well as the leader himself or herself.
Leaders sometimes delude themselves into thinking that they are working for the greater good through Socialized Power; but, in fact, they engage in activities that are morally unacceptable. Often, possession of power can cause a leader to engage in a psychological procedure called “Exception Making.” In the leader’s perception rules that govern what is right and wrong do not apply to powerful leaders. The rationale is that this act would be wrong for other people, but not for me because I care about my followers and have their best interest at heart. Therefore, it would be alright for me to pursue my interests as well.
Social psychological studies have found that leaders can also become intoxicated by power and engage in questionable behavior simply because they can get away with it and their followers are willing to condone their unethical behavior. Interestingly enough, power has advantages and disadvantages for leaders. One major advantage is that power makes leaders more assertive and confident in decision making. This kind of power makes them move forward on chosen courses of action. Without power, leaders can not accomplish much or get the job done.
Power also has disadvantages for leaders. On the negative side, the more leaders posses power, the more they focus on their own desires and the less on their followers’ needs. On the bizarre side of leadership, there are individual differences. Some leaders are simply power hungry and prone to use their power to subjugate others. They amass power for the sake of power and not for purely for personal gains, but to get even with their adversaries. It is kind of obtaining power to wreak vengeance on your enemies.
In sum, we have given you some insights into why and how power corrupts leaders. Therefore, our accused clergymen have become victims of Personalized Power (i.e., use of power for personal gains). It would be very difficult to go back to Socialized or Shared Power to benefit one’s followers. We should be understanding and compassionate about these clergymen and try to forgive them if they want atonement for their sins. It is only Christian to forgive. At the same time, we do not want to have Armenian churches of shame. We do not want our Holy Churches to become pits for power addicts, either.
Power is seductive which motivates and drives some of us to hunt for it by hook or crook. To lead, we need power. On account of the leader’s knowledge and experience, followers will give up their rights to someone to lead. The trusted person can become a statesman or a leviathan (a power hungry monster). However, it does not require Machiavellianism, the tendency to be unemotional to be able to detach oneself from conventional morality and hence to deceive and manipulate others, in order to gain power.
Kindness, social grace, generosity, empathy, community orientation, compassion would yield power and influence over others. Let us all turn the other cheek to the clergymen who had fallen out of the grace of their own church provided they immediately abdicate their leadership if they are found to be truly guilty. We hope the vacancy would be filled by a new cadre of clergymen with great integrity, selflessness, and God fearing to begin serving our Holy Armenian Apostolic Church, as the house of God, with dignity and genuine righteousness.

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