“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

I watched “American Experience” on PBS the other night, a profile of Henry Ford. He was the classic American story of a farm boy who went to the city and changed the world. He was for the American people, he was one of them, us. He was doing what was right for the masses and not just for the rich, an idealist if there ever was one. But, somewhere along the line, he changed into an example of how power changes men and egos become more important than anything. Power has been a problem for humans…forever!


Ford became more and more convinced that he knew what was right for his workers, for all people. If they would just live the way he knew was right for them, then they would all be happy. He took credit for everything, even his son’s accomplishments, belittling him at the same time. If there was ever a direct cause for cancer, it would be Edsel Ford’s stomach cancer after a lifetime of his father telling him what he was doing wrong, mainly because it wasn’t the way Henry would do it. Ford was a great man in many ways, but his failings as a person are directly linked to his growing power until he became the wealthiest man in America. He criticized the wealthy while living in a 31,000 sq foot gated house on hundreds of acres and never saw the irony. He was an American icon, but he was a greater person when he had nothing.

I was thinking of some of the careers I’ve had in my life. There were two places I worked where I thought I would stay until I retired, both nonprofits, although I’ve worked in the corporate world, too. Both were magnificent organizations, both were nationally known for their work. I was part of a team, a team of friends. We didn’t just work together, we loved each other, took care of each other. We complemented each other, made our goals, made a difference. These were dream jobs, the kind that everybody wants.

Both jobs fell apart and it reminds me of both Lincoln’s quote and Henry Ford. Both were due to the leader of the organization, the paid leader. One was because of the leader’s ineptness. When things at the top didn’t go so well, he took no blame but began to scourge the organization, starting with the most threatening departments, the ones who were too close to each other and too good. It was an insidious process, one that probably broke all kinds of human resource laws as well as being a disgrace to human decency. This man in particular was given too much power with too little ability. He didn’t ask for help, he just flailed away, whittling away at employee morale until what had been heaven as a workplace had become a daily hell. When he left, he, of course, was sent to another city in a higher position, taking with him the power to decimate another city’s chapter. And, it’s taken years for the local organization to finally get back on an even keel, financially and by reputation in the community.

The second time I lived through this, the leader saw himself as the savior of the organization, the only one who could lead us to the future. We all need leaders with vision, but there is something to be said for a vision that includes people. He was all about numbers, hitting goals no matter how it was done. His praise when a goal was met rang false when you listened to him taking credit for every accomplishment. There was a feeling that you were working to build his resume so that he could move higher in his next position. And, as the staff met every goal, his ego grew. Now he alone knew what would work best, what the city needed. He was making decisions in a vacuum or with a select team of yes people around him, not consulting with most of the staff or the board of directors. The tension among the staff was a slow vibration that grew until it was a constant hum in the workplace. A virus was sickening the building, affecting the mental health of those who were smart enough to see what was happening and numbing those who couldn’t afford to get out.

I sound kind of brutal about these things. I’m not naive about business or the reality of even the dream places to work, the models like Google or Pixar or QuikTrip. There are always problems in the workplace, just like families or clubs or religious organizations or any group that is populated by human beings. I wish I had the answers, but none of us is perfect. We need to study the stories of those who were given power and didn’t abuse it, who actually valued people first and took their power to do what was right. Why are those names harder to conjure up without thinking about it?

Someone once told me I had strong character because of the things life has thrown at me. I say I’ve had all the character building experiences I want. Dealing with what life brings you is what we have to do to survive and be as happy as we can with what we have. I can give you a long list of friends I admire who have done that and continue to inspire others with their ability to adapt.

Power is something we all think we would like. We use words like powerless or empowered all the time. Politicians work so hard to get the power to accomplish whatever they went into politics to do and then have to compromise their ideals to keep the power. It’s a vicious circle for them. Good men and women become corrupted by power, sucked in by the rush of that strong urge. I’m not sure there is a way to tell who will fall victim to those seductive perks of power…we’ve all seen good people fall.

Now, I’m rambling on about it, so I’ll quit with nothing resolved. I just don’t like to see people hurt by other people. Ever.