Who Gets Power & How It Changes Us. A Conversation with Prof. Brian Klaas, Author of CORRUPTIBLE.

Who Gets Power & How It Changes Us. A Conversation with Prof. Brian Klaas, Author of CORRUPTIBLE.

Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the result of poorly designed systems or are they just bad people? Are tyrants made or born? If you were suddenly thrust into a position of power, would you be able to resist the temptation to line your pockets or seek revenge against your enemies?

To answer these questions, I spoke to Dr. Brian Klaas, who is Associate Professor in Global Politics at University College London, a columnist for The Washington Post, and who has advised governments, US political campaigns, NATO, the European Union and multi-billion dollar NGOs. In his latest book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us, Brian combined decades of research with over 500 interviews with leaders including presidents, philanthropists, cult-leaders, dictators and entrepreneurs.

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Brian Klaas about why our societies concentrate power into hierarchies and why our power systems attract certain types of leaders. We also talk about how we can design systems that can prevent corruption and abuses of power together with how we can attract, and empower, a better class of leader.

Q: Why are our societies set-up to concentrate power?

[Brian Klaas]: We take the structure of our society for granted, but for most of human history society, until c.10,000 years ago, society was quite egalitarian. Certainly, some hierarchy existed in select communities, and in periods of crisis, but societies were otherwise small and egalitarian by design. In one hunter-gatherer society I looked at for example, arrowheads are allocated randomly so the hunter doesn’t own the kill, the act of hunting is shared among the community.

Whilst there are some disagreements – it’s clear that agriculture and war have been key contributors to the emergence of hierarchical societies as we now see them- the structure was never inevitable.

Q: What characterises those people who seek power? 

[Brian Klaas]: The story of who gets into power is also linked to who we need to keep out of power. Sometimes it’s people who believe they have a religious gift who get into power – shamanic leaders often claim they have some spiritual gift, or a message from the spirits. Sometimes it’s people who are power-hungry for the sake of militaristic power, or who are very good at fighting or wish to accumulate wealth. Those parallels exist in the modern era but it’s important to zero-in on the dark triad of traits, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. It’s a minority of power-seekers who are high on those traits, but those individuals are so disproportionately destructive that they deserve special-consideration.

There’s an innate tendency in human-beings to sort ourselves by how much we want power. Some of us don’t want it at all, some of us are absolutely obsessed with it. The interaction between the individual and the system is therefore critical as the system either dials-up those individual personality traits and attracts those people who are already attracted to power, or it counteracts those traits and attracts people who might not consider themselves naturally drawn to power, but who could be very good at wielding it.

Q: How have our stone-age minds influenced our power structures?

[Brian Klaas]: The logic of evolution is rarely applied to humans in a social setting. We talk about evolution in the context of other species but tend to forget that it impacts our own society, psychology, and discourse. Evolutionary psychology teaches us that our brains are adapted to a certain set of circumstances which help us survive, and this adaptation has taken place over a long time. In this context, the modern era is a tiny blip in the history of our species, and certainly has not been long enough to create any meaningful evolutionary adaptations.

If you think we’ve had eight-thousand modern generations of humans, for most of these generations (literally until the last 10-15) size conferred a considerable advantage to survival. We know that our brains are fundamentally the same as the people who lived 50,000 years ago and thus our brains are adapted to survive in a world that’s totally alien to the world we live in today. Our brains are therefore adapted to pick leaders based on characteristics that are no longer adaptive, or necessary today. In times of crisis for example, we are wired (according to evolutionary psychology) to gravitate towards strong men – strong males who are overconfident and speak of solutions in simplistic terms. That’s what historically it took to survive. Studies back this up – when primed for crises, people do tend to gravitate towards physically stronger, taller leaders. The caveat however is that this is unfalsifiable – you can’t travel back in time to study the brains of people from 30-50,000 years ago. We can however see that skulls haven’t changed… that DNA has remained relatively stable… and the evidence would appear to suggest that our brains would have changed very little (if at all over that period). We cannot however say how a thought pattern would differ 50,000 years ago from today. Caveat aside, there is very persuasive evidence to suggest that leadership selection is swayed by the evolutionary adaptations that created our stone-age brains – which were operating in a very different world to our modern era.

Q: Why does society often allow people with no business being in power, to be in power?

[Brian Klaas]: Across the whole animal kingdom we see an interaction between confidence and rank – and studies show that in humans, if someone is commanding in their presence, it directly correlates to how a group judges their skill level! Someone who is commanding in presence is often followed over someone who is far more effective but who is quiet, hesitant, or timid. In some ways this makes sense – it’s an adaptation to the extreme risks such as starvation that used to be regular for most of our species. In the modern era, this adaptation allows people to achieve, and maintain power, through entertaining us, signalling confidence, and signalling knowledge (even if they don’t have the answers!).

It’s interesting also to turn the mirror back on ourselves. Power is relational; we talk about seizing power but ultimately – at least in democratic societies – you need the followers to be powerful, and it’s important therefore for us to understand the cognitive biases that mean that we (as a society) keep gravitating towards people who are clearly unfit for the job.

Q: How has the digital-media era changed our relationship with power?

[Brian Klaas]: In the past, hierarchy was much more controllable. If you were in politics and you wanted to rise the ladder, you kept your head down for the first 5-10 years, put the work in, and you’d be hoping that a leader would notice you and give you the platform to rise-up. Digital media has allowed a complete bypass of those structures – there’s less control around power – and people can amass huge followings for totally irrational reasons. Let me give you an example. In the US, Marjorie Greene is a member of Congress for the Republican party. She’s totally insane, she’s a QAnon believer who thinks that Jewish space lasers are responsible for wildfires in California – I’m not joking. Yet, because of social media, she doesn’t need the Senate Lead to give his blessing to rise-up as a leader, she can just amass a social media following and go directly to people for fundraising and profile.

Social media has broken the stranglehold that hierarchy often has in organisations for better and for worse. Social media has given a platform and audience to whistle-blowers which has been of huge benefit – it’s exposed scandals, and abuses of power in many domains.

Interestingly, social media has also enabled the creation of huge niche audiences. Previously, to be a prominent figure, you would have had household name recognition. Today, you can go on Instagram or TikTok and find someone with millions of followers who you’ve never heard of!

Q: How can we design better systems to prevent corruption and abuses of power?

[Brian Klaas]: We have to create systems that make people think twice before they behave badly, and there are a couple of effective ways we can do that. Firstly, rotation. There are situations where collaboration increases the risk of abuses of power. People collude where they feel trust with others, and rotating people therefore decreases the likelihood of developing a sufficient level of comfort to lead to collusion. There is a just-right level of distrust that becomes optimal. The balance of course is making sure that you don’t rotate people so-often as to remove (or never create) the institutional-memory you need to be effective. Secondly, randomness combined with surveillance matters. It would be totally dystopian for example, to have a camera pointing at a fridge where- on occasion- you place a fake sandwich as bait, but we do need surveillance systems pointing at the areas where problems could arise. Every single corporate and political scandal occurs behind closed doors and in the boardrooms where surveillance systems are designed not to look. Randomness allows surveillance without that dystopian element to it. People need to credibly believe that there will be consequences to their actions if caught in random stings. If you are in a position where you are uniquely able to wield power- politics, police, corporate leadership- you should be randomly subject to attempts to see if you behave badly when offered the opportunity to do so. The results of these stings should be published (thus giving a consequence for bad behaviour, and a reward for good behaviour). It is right that those in power should feel more scrutinised than the average worker.

Q: How can we get ‘better’ people into power?

[Brian Klaas]: We have to do a better job of recruiting people into power rather than just waiting for self-selection. So many of our systems of power are reliant on people putting themselves forward and guess what- people who are power-hungry will put themselves forward for positions of power. We need to seek out people not just rely on self-selection. We need to headhunt people who have demonstrated leadership capability and integrity rather than just relying on those who speak well or who are members of the right ‘club.’ This is a particular problem for democracies where elections are unavoidably performative.

We need to reform our systems so that normal people want to be more powerful. There’s a fine-line between, for example, journalistic investigations into a Prime Minister (which is a completely legitimate activity) versus the fact that someone may not run for a local council seat because they’re worried about their life being destroyed by being in the public spotlight, having every aspect of their life scrutinised, and receiving death-threats on twitter.

We have engineered a world where going into leadership or public office creates huge worry. That’s a problem as it means that the people who go forward for these roles are those for whom power is the reward, not doing the work.

We also need to do better at vetting people who get into power. In much of the business and political realm, we have a culture of talking-your-way-out-of-anything. We’re rewarding people who are the most able to smooth-talk their way out of a situation. The awkward, introverted person who may actually be extremely competent simply couldn’t survive… they would crumble. We absolutely have to scrutinise people in power – but we have to think of the responsibility that comes with that scrutiny, and the consequences of it. 

Q: Does the notion of what constitutes value in our society influence

[Brian Klaas]: The upheaval of the pandemic has caused millions of people to re-evaluate what life is all about – and that in-turn determines what types of power we covet as a society.

If power is about prestige, fame, and money, then we’ve got the right system. The people in power in our world get all those things. If power is about the net-effect you have on society, we don’t have the right system for that. There’s a real problem in modern-society whereby power is seen as the end in itself.

The system of power determines who applies – good systems attract good people, rotten systems attract rotten people. The challenge of course is divorcing the instrumental aspect from the intrinsic value to those people in power. That’s really difficult to do – you can’t make powerful people anonymous. You’re not going to have an anonymous Prime Minister! In pragmatic terms, I think it’s quite difficult to downplay the effects of fame and financial wealth from power itself, because they almost always go hand in hand.

Q: Can a better understanding of power prevent abuses of power?  

[Brian Klaas]: You often here the Milgram Experiment cited in literature – it shows how obedience to powerful figures can cause ordinary people to do horrific things. The experiment was partly developed after the Holocaust as society was wondering how such an atrocity could happen. However, history repeats itself, and the lesson is that ordinary people are susceptible to doing extraordinary evil things when told to do so by an authority figure, or when they believe that they’re fighting for an authority figure or ideal. Power is a force that often causes people to rationalise things. The literature on mass atrocities tells us that those committing the atrocities believe they’re doing something virtuous- fighting for a nation, an ideal, or something else of value. They don’t think of themselves as the ‘bad guys,’ at the time. Power also has a deferential aspect such that if people are commanding you to do things, you may internalise the fact that their power makes their request legitimate.

Q: What do you think we need to talk about when it comes to power?

[Brian Klaas]: One of the things I think about is how we feel so abhorred when those in power take vacation. My view is that in moderation, vacations for people in power, and in government, are absolutely the right thing to do. They’re human beings! If someone is stressed-out and sleep-deprived, they’re going to be awful at making decisions. That discussion about occasional recharge and mental health for leaders almost never comes up. We have this notion that leaders are superhuman – and that showing signs of stress and overwork are weakness. You know what, I want the person in charge of US security to have had a good night’s sleep!

We also need to talk about the cognitive biases that inform how we select those who get into power and the very real mental and physiological changes that occur in those who attain power.

Acknowledging realities is the first step to fixing the system! 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.