Excessive Deference to Leaders Corrupts Them

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Who wouldn't lose their humility if constantly surrounded by sycophants eager to invest them with unchecked power?

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David Brooks kept an audience of hundreds rapt Thursday for a compelling 45 minute lecture on two competing codes of human conduct: the code of honor and valor that we associate with the Greeks, and the code of humility and love that we associate with Jesus Christ. In his estimation, we're at our best when we succeed in blending these codes, but we've largely abandoned both.

He nevertheless argued, during a brief question answer session, that today's political leaders are often better than we give them credit for being. He praised Chief Justice John Roberts for acting as a guardian of the institution he heads while adjudicating the Affordable Care Act. President Obama has many wonderful qualities, he averred, adding that humility isn't one of them. He praised Mitt Romney too, noting that he's had a remarkably successful career in business, that he is the sort of man who left his son's wedding reception to aid a sick person in need, and that he once helped an acquaintance move boxes despite having an arm in a cast at the time.

Often, America's elected officials are people you'd admire if you met them in any other walk of life, he concluded. "They're impressive people in the business with the toughest possible character test: everyone is worshiping them their whole lives. It's tough to be a normal person with that."

On that narrow point I think he is right.

Most of our presidents, senators and governors are extremely accomplished people with at least some exceptional qualities. They are thrust into a position that would be the ruin of many humans. Power itself tends to corrupt. Being surrounded by sycophants is itself a character test. There are, too, the many opportunities for personal indiscretions, and an apparent sense of invulnerability.

But I part ways with Brooks when I ponder the implications of these realities.

He pondered them in a recent column. In it he empathizes with those in power, a natural enough thing for an empathetic man who often interviews them. "We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power," he writes. "Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty." He goes on to note that "the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs... These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those 'Question Authority' bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority."

It seems to me that there is a tension between Brooks' insight about why it is difficult to be a good leader, and his admonition that "before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following." As he puts it, "To have good leaders you have to have good followers -- able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it." His critics perhaps dismiss this point too readily. There have been times when leaders inspired greatness in followers. Take Gandhi (never mind the reality that today's leaders are not exactly Gandhi analogues).

What cannot be squared, in my mind, is the insight that leader worship makes it harder for people in power to behave honorably, and the simultaneous argument that we need to be more admiring of our leaders. I do not mean that we should be disrespectful or them, nor of any other human being.

But we ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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