Power, Responsibility and Character

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Power and responsibility don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but they’re inseparable for a person of solid character.

There’s been a great deal of civil unrest in the U.S. lately due to allegations of abuses of power by law enforcement officials, especially with regard to their treatment of certain minority groups. For several months the media have been abuzz with stories of young persons of color, some of whom were undoubtedly of less than impeccable character, who were so aggressively pursued and handled that instead of merely being curtailed, contained, arrested and eventually charged with a crime, somehow ended up dead before justice (under the presumption of innocence, of course) could be served. The public outcry about these events has had just as much to do with perceptions about the abuse of power as it has with concerns that racial biases may have at least in part sparked such abuses.

Voltaire is reported to have said that with great power comes great responsibility. Many other historians, philosophers, and social scientists have observed that in our increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, with great responsibility, especially when faithfully shouldered, there inevitably comes great power. Abraham Lincoln is well known for saying that almost any man can withstand some adversity but “if you really want to test his character, give him power.” By this he meant that while strength of character may indeed be revealed by how a person weathers trying circumstances, what truly defines a person’s integrity of character is how they approach the use of any power they might have amassed.

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Armed with the legal authority to arrest and restrict the freedom of its citizens, and armed with weaponry sufficient to incapacitate, paralyze, maim, or even terminate a life, American police officers have been conferred tremendous power. With that power should necessarily come equal responsibility and accountability. Having worked closely with various aspects of law enforcement and the justice system for years, I know how much character it takes to be a good officer of the law. Sometimes the folks officers have to deal with are of grossly deficient character with as little regard for the value of human life as they have respect for the law or its enforcement agents. Officers routinely get spit on, cursed at, kicked, etc., and they are expected not only to hold their composure during such mistreatment but also to use only the amount of force truly necessary to curtail wrongdoers and protect the innocent. It’s a very tough job and officers face the constant temptation to let their indignation and ire get the best of them and to mete out punishment on the spot, as opposed to patiently exercising the kind of restraint necessary to allow the legal system afford every citizen — guilty or not — due process. There are some individuals who are not cut out for the job, and the reasons for that inevitably have to do with how they approach and exercise power.

Lord John E.E.D. Acton famously asserted that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But as I point out in my books, if that assertion were valid, all parents of newborn children would be corrupted beyond measure because of the absolute power they truly hold. While there are indeed those parents who neglect or abuse their children, fortunately most parents approach the tremendous responsibility that comes along with their power as both an honor and a solemn duty. It’s all a matter of character. Unfortunately, there are individuals who are particularly drawn to enterprises in which they can have and wield power. Ravenous power seekers inevitably tend to abuse whatever power they corral — it’s simply a part of their aggressive nature. Such folks should never wear a badge, but sadly some do. There are also individuals who, while less seriously deficient in character, are at risk for abandoning whatever restraint and/or good judgment they might otherwise have when certain circumstances test their integrity. Given the amount of power that comes with their position, and given the inevitable demands of the job, such folks should also probably not be entrusted with a badge. But again, sadly, all too many are.

The Dean of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, Dr. Robert L. Joss, recently said that placing one’s responsibilities ahead of one’s desire for power is the key to true leadership. He added that all too often folks in leadership positions “get caught up in thinking about power rather than their responsibility to those they lead.” While Joss has a great point to make about a person’s attitude toward power and the ability to lead, the larger matter is how critical anyone’s regard of power is to their integrity of character and to the way they will likely carry out any responsibilities they’re given, whether they’re in a position of leadership, governance, law enforcement or even private enterprise. Lincoln had it right: power, and especially how a person regards power, is the truest test of character. And as I’ve asserted for years, character is the essential ingredient for a just and prosperous society. If there’s anything the events that have sparked so much unrest in the streets of America over the past few months should teach us, it’s that without character and accountability, power in anyone’s hands is always a dangerous commodity.

For more on power and character, see my article “Three Tests of Character: Adversity, Temptation, and Power” and my books:

  • Character Disturbance
  • In Sheep’s Clothing
  • The Judas Syndrome

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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