Are bosses who manage by fear and intimidation and occasional acts of cruelty shaped by innate characteristics or is there something about the leadership position that causes them to behave this way? Toni Bowers, in her blog "View from the Cubicle," asks this question. She sites the classic 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment as evidence of the power corrupting. In this simulation of a prison, college students, who are given the role of prison guards, very quickly degenerate into highly controling and abusive leaders. Phillip Zimbardo's famous pychology experiment provides evidence that bad organizations triumph over good people. Despite citing this research, Bowers is reluctant to believe that all people have the potential, given the right circumstances, to behave in cruel ways. She wrote:
I’m inclined to think that there was a preexisting weakness in the character of those people who become corrupted by authority — something a psychological test couldn’t have detected. I do think leadership changes people, but I really can’t believe that inside all of us is some seed of cruelty that is germinated by power.
I believe that having power can have a profound negative impact on individual behavior. We have many real world examples: "good soldiers" abusing prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; Jews who were given authority positions tormenting other Jews in Nazi deathcamps; once popular and highly respected governors, mayors, and congressional leaders using their power in illicit and unethical ways; CEOs increasing their political and financial control of their organizations at the expense of everyone else. Of course, not everyone in positions of power becomes corrupt, but clearly bad systems can interact with individual characteristics to bring out the worst in people.