There are various versions of this story, but the common elements are as follows: When the great emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled Rome, he was very concerned about not letting his enormous power go to his head.
He was aware of the tendency of powerful men to get carried away by their power.
It is said that the emperor therefore hired a servant whose main job it was to literally follow him around as he walked the streets of the city.
Every time a citizen bowed down to greet the emperor or shouted a word of praise about his great deeds, Marcus Aurelius instructed the servant to whisper a few words in his ear. These were the words: “You’re just a man. You’re just a man.”
The Roman emperor knew one of the most important truths about power – it does go to the head, and quickly. Part of the reason for this relates to our inherent psychological need for acknowledgment and recognition.
This is one of the four basic needs of all human beings. We want to feel important. We want to be recognized. And the more powerful we become – men and women – the more we seem to lose sight of who we are and begin to crave more power and recognition.
We often see this in political leaders, but it is also very much true of many other professions. My concern however is primarily with political leaders and public servants.
And I start there because too often we find that the people who are placed in positions to serve us, often turn it around and expect us to serve them.
Whether it is a politician, a public official, or a public service employee, they are all PUBLIC SERVANTS – meaning servants of the people.
One group – the politicians - are elected to SERVE the interest of the people, and the other group – the public servants – are recruited or appointed to SERVE.
(The same is true of staff and officials in international organisations such as the UN, World Bank – they are officially classified as international civil SERVANTS).
But how often do we see political leaders, all over the world, behaving like gods to be worshipped, or civil servants behaving as though they are more important than the people they are expected to serve?
Many studies have been done on this issue of how people’s behavior change once they assume positions of authority (look up the human behavior experiments in the 1960s). I have served as an elected political leader, and I have seen it happen around me.
The way a culture of authority and arrogance develops. I have watched both political leaders and public servant become wealthier and more powerful, owning more assets and having influential networks.
And I have seen how people, especially the poor, begin to praise these leaders and public servants and ask them for favours. I have seen how the ‘creator-complex’ gets formed – politicans and public officials seeing themselves as gods, or as patrons with clients (hence the origin of the term Patron-clientelism), or as benefactors with beneficiaries.
I have seen people waiting hours to seek a small favour from an official who now sees him/herself as being above the people.
As a leader put in a position of authority, how do you constantly remind yourself to be humble, and that you are serving and not being served?
Second, how do you ensure that you are able to get frank, honest opinion and not just have close aides tell you what they think you want to hear, to massage your growing ego?.
We know that leaders like having people around them that are loyal. But what they need more is loyalty coupled with honesty and forthrightedness. How a marriage works – you know your partner has your back 100%, but you know equally that he or she will, in private, tell you your flaws.
It is to help you get better and remain grounded. That can be one of the persons to remind you, “You are a servant of the people, not their creator, not their god.”
But we also need strong systems of accountability – clear performance metrics for public officials that includes ‘service’ to clients.
The Jews wear a ‘cap’ to remind them that there is something more powerful above them. Political leaders and public servants often need something to remind them that there is something more powerful below them – the voice, the needs, the rights, the dignity of the citizen they are there to serve.
Let us commit to being that thing that reminds our leaders, political and otherwise, that they are mere mortals elected or selected to serve.
The writer is owner and managing director of Forrest Jackson Properties, a full-service real estate company in Kigali.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.