The quote is attributed to the English historian and writer, Lord Acton, in a letter he wrote in 1887:
The tendency is for power to corrupt, and for absolute power to corrupt absolutely.
The final step in the progression occurs when a leader’s consuming obsession becomes maintaining power. The original means the leader used to acquire a position of power (how he/she built their followership) is no longer relevant. They have the power, and to them any means of keeping it/expressing it/using it is fair game.
Coercion and Control takes Compensation one step further. Where the leader by Compensation is essentially buying loyalty, the Coercive/Controlling leader maintains loyalty by eliminating the disloyal. He/she finds that those formerly being compensated for cooperation need less and less compensation. Staying alive another day is compensation enough.
History is littered with the stories of such leaders. One would for the most part have to credit them with being exceptionally strong leaders, in that they maintained power despite plunging the vast majority of their subjects into extreme suffering. (Again, strong leadership does not necessarily correlate to good leadership or a good human being.)
What does Coercion and Control look like in an organization? In my Culture Change series of posts, I contrasted process-centered and personality-centered organizations. The Coercive/Controlling leader is the extreme case of personality-centric operations, in that the leader’s personality alone is what drives decisions and actions.
The small organization, especially the “closely held” organization that one person built from scratch into a successful entity, is particularly vulnerable to such leadership. If one person built it, and they own 100% of it, to some degree they have earned the right to lead as they see fit (as long as no laws are violated).
The end of such a leader can be especially brutal, in politics or in business, because too often the end of their reign coincides with the complete collapse of country or the organization. There is no step past complete Control.
So What’s Next?
Starting next week, we will consider the motivations to leadership, striking a balance between personality and process focus in leadership, and tackle the oft-debated question, are leaders made or born? Your feedback and ideas, especially on this question, are welcome and will be thoughtfully considered as I attempt to put a neat wrapping and bow around our leadership discussion. (And I will give full credit to contributors, so if you want to get a free plug for your blog, book, etc., let me know.)