It is human nature to balance self-interest with community interest. So, all leaders will, to some extent, act in their own self-interest. However, if the balance swings too far in that direction, then the leader will usurp the function of the organisation to the detriment of other stakeholders, such as employees or customers, and it will fail.
The exact balance struck between self-interest and collective interest depends on the personality of the leader. Aspects of personality that can cause leaders to lean towards self-interest include dominance, the habitual pursuit of power and a weak conscience or super-ego.
In their 2016 paper, Dominance and Prestige: Dual Strategies for Navigating Social Hierarchies, Maner and Case state the following. “The motivations that drive people to attain social rank thus play a profound role in guiding their leadership behavior and the extent to which they prioritize the goals of the group over their own social rank.” They also state that “Several studies suggest that leaders high in dominance motivation—those who seek to attain social rank through the use of coercion and intimidation—selfishly prioritize their social rank over the well-being of the group.…Leaders high in prestige motivation, on the other hand, are motivated primarily by the desire for respect and admiration.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0065260116300144
Some leaders can fully internalise the pursuit and defence of power. It becomes a habitual and unconscious form of behaviour that persists as a need in its own right.
It is easier to climb an existing hierarchy than to create a new one with oneself at the pinnacle. This is not a universal rule, of course, and there are, for example, self-interested leaders who have built empires from a silver spoon passed on by their parents. Nevertheless, once established, an organisation can attract individuals who seek power to satisfy their own personal objectives, for example wealth, fame, or influence.
In the competition to ascend a hierarchy, individuals who are relatively unconstrained by ethical considerations, or are willing to use negative competition, or who have learnt the “rules of the game” have an advantage over others. Thus, they often take control of and corrupt organisations that may have been set up with the best of intentions. There are three personality types that are a particular risk: the psychopath, the narcissist, and the dark empath. They will be discussed in more detail in future articles.
The concentration of power, i.e., the ability to direct resources for the satisfaction of a particular need, in the hands of a few seems to be the greatest source of misery, poverty, and injustice in the world. To cite just one example, the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, argued that democracies are less likely to go to war than absolutist states, i.e., states where power is concentrated in the hands of the ruler. In a truly democratic state, leaders require the support of the population if they are to engage in war. The population will, of course, weigh up the advantages and disadvantages to themselves before giving their support. Consider, for example, the popular opposition in the USA to the Vietnam war and, in the UK, to the invasion of Iraq. In an absolutist state, on the other hand, only the advantages and disadvantages for the ruler are taken into consideration and the suffering of the population has little or no bearing on the decision. An example is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Essentially, the decision is a risk/benefit/cost calculation, and rulers frequently have far more to gain than their population. This is, of course, just one example on an international scale, but similar issues exist in all walks of life and at all scales. So, if we wish to tackle poverty, strife, and injustice in the world, then we must tackle its root cause, the concentration of unregulated power in the hands of a few.
Reference: Maner, J.K. and Case, C.R. 2016. “Chapter 3 – Dominance and Prestige: Dual Strategies for Navigating Social Hierarchies, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology”, Volume 54, Pages 129-180, ISSN 0065-2601, ISBN 9780128047385, https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2016.02.001. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0065260116300144