Powerful Leaders Have Extra Moral Responsibility

Topic(s): leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: Does power corrupt or enable? When and why power facilitates self-interested behavior
Authors: K.A. DeCelles, D.S. DeRue, J.D. Margolis, T.L. Ceranic
Reviewed by: Larry Martinez

Within organizations, those with power can have enormous impact on the future of the company. However, each individual with power is faced with an important choice: use the power for the common good of the organization, or use it for one’s personal gain. This is the topic of research in a new study (DeCelles et al., 2012).


The researchers wanted to find the answer to the question, “Who is susceptible to being corrupted by power?” They conducted two studies and found that when participants were made to feel powerful, those who had virtuous moral identities were less likely (than their ‘morally corrupt’ counterparts) to act in self-interested ways and more likely to act in ways that benefited the greater good. In other words, those who have strong senses of right and wrong are more likely to use their power for good.

These studies also suggest that those who are aware of the morality inherent in the situation are more or less likely to act in ways that coincide with their moral identities (e.g., “This is a situation in which morals come into play. I see myself as moral, therefore I will act in a moral way”). So, people who describe themselves as moral when describing their identity are more likely to be aware of morality when given power and thus more likely to act in benevolent ways.


This article demonstrates that power in and of itself doesn’t always corrupt. However, it allows corrupt people to express their inner ‘corruptness’ more freely. Conversely, it allows the virtuous to express their goodness. In other words, power super-charges the inherent moral/corrupt tendencies that are already present within a person and can lead to behavior that has a significant impact across an organization. This means that organizations might place particular emphasis on candidates’ morality when making promotion decisions and emphasize the importance of morality in their incumbent leaders.


DeCelles, K. A., DeRue, D. S., Margolis, J. D., Ceranic, T. L. (2012). Does power corrupt or enable? When and why power facilitates self-interested behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 681-689.