Status, glory, utopia. These are the three reasons why people seek authority over others—what we call power. It was true of ancient empires like the Roman and the Han. It’s true of modern corporations. It’s true of great bureaucracies. Most of all it’s true of governments and societies, including our own republic.
Status seekers want power because they want to be important. They crave riches, celebrity, and respect. They want to fly on private jets, get invited to elite parties, and have potential romantic partners desire them. They want power over others not because they want to lead, but because they covet the material and social rewards that leaders get. To status seekers, power is simply a means to improve their lives.
Glory seekers want power so they can slay dragons and conquer worlds. They seek not so much the accolades of contemporaries but tomorrow’s cheering crowds. They dream of the immortality to which history books attest. To glory seekers, power is a tool to secure a legacy.
Utopians want power in order to remake a world they believe is fallen, evil, and unjust. They’re consumed by a desire to transform it into the world they believe it ought to be. They hope to bring about utopia, and they need power to make others go along. To utopians, power is an instrument to remake the world.
Since status seekers, glory seekers, and utopians desire power for different reasons, the success of every system depends on arranging the three groups in proper balance. You need the right people leading, the right people executing plans, and the right people protesting outside the gates.
People are perplexed about what has happened to Americans. How did we elect a leader uninterested in his responsibilities to our republic, seeking only to leverage his position to benefit himself? How did we fill our official ranks with cowards, cronies, and mediocrities too afraid to act, think, or challenge the loudest voices in the room? Amid economic, social, and cultural transformation, why have we wholly neglected to act? Where are our Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts, the individuals who usually emerge at times like these to help us navigate dangerous storms into the clearer waters of new eras? Why, after decades, even centuries, of dynamism and success, did America suddenly stop acting like the serious country it used to be?
This tragic failure has many causes, but among the most important and least discussed is that we stopped successfully managing the three types of people seeking power. For centuries we let glory seekers lead, made status seekers manage, and left utopians free to call out injustices and wrongs but never allowed them to grab the levers of power themselves. That’s the only arrangement that succeeds with time. Now that this balance is unraveling, everything is falling apart.
One might wrongly think that status seekers are of little consequence. Even if wealthy and powerful, they don’t use their power to change the world. They pass through life pretending to be giants—and, once gone, are promptly forgotten. Yet while status-seeking leaders don’t use their power to make things better, and certainly make them worse if allowed to lead, they can also be essential when in their proper place as executers and managers of a genuine leader’s plans.
Status seekers want authority over others not to accomplish things but to win rewards. With power come riches and respect—the private drivers, elite invitations, and unchallenged deference. It’s possible, of course, to acquire social status without authority: celebrities, beautiful people, and those with inherited credentials do. But access to power is a surefire way to social significance.
There’s nothing bad about wanting social status. The desire is inherent in human nature. We climbed out of our dank caves to build pyramids and smartphones because we’re cooperative animals capable of coordinating complex plans. That cooperation creates hierarchy. Hierarchy provides deference and material rewards to those who reach the top. Everybody wants those things because they inevitably make life better. Pursuing status only becomes a problem when people divert positions meant for leadership to that purpose.
The proper purpose of authority is to accomplish things. The president, the king, the CEO, the senator, the priest—these jobs exist not to glorify the holder but to coordinate complex projects that get useful, important, and often necessary things done. They’re not just means to dominate others and take spoils as a predator would do. They come with duties and responsibilities to manage things on which other people depend.
You don’t want to allow status seekers to control an institution because they inevitably drive it into stagnation, corruption, and decline. First, they don’t innovate, reform, or navigate change. The smart way to rise to power in an organization isn’t to challenge conventions, violate norms, disrupt people’s expectations, or threaten influential people’s existing interests, expectations, and beliefs. The best way to rise in a hierarchy and stay there is to cozy up to those who control it. Using power to actually change things alienates the very people who decide which individuals will rise and which ones won’t. That’s intolerable to status seekers, for whom simply having the position is all they wanted in the first place.
Worse, status seekers often become corrupt. After all, they only wanted power to begin with to benefit themselves. Such corruption may entail bribery, illicit favors, or embezzlement. It can also involve unearned methods of siphoning off wealth or privilege: cronyism, looking the other way for friends, and hiring your buddy’s son; fief building, budget manipulation, or kneecapping talented rivals; behaving so you’ll look good, not doing what must be done. All of which are ways to divert resources meant for a common goal to benefit yourself instead.
Organizations with status-seeking leaders don’t work the way they should. They can’t reform or innovate. They don’t take necessary risks. They won’t cast off outdated orthodoxies when situations change. They can’t say no to influential people. They divert resources from where they’re needed. They destroy or push out people with talent. They flatter influence and power. They refuse to make hard decisions. The best a status-seeker-dominated organization can do is conscientiously keep things moving in the same direction, like Blockbuster Video at the dawn of streaming; the worst is outright corruption and decay. In either case, the end result is a descent into mediocrity, inefficiency, frustration, stagnation, and decline. Even when the status seekers are good people who mean no harm, they can never effectively lead because that would risk the very thing they most desire, which is gaining and maintaining the social status that comes with power.
Rampant status seeking is the cause of shoddy products, failing bureaucracies, and governments that can’t keep basic promises. It’s what motivates counterproductive procedures and petty office politics. It’s behind coups, failed states, and pointless wars. It’s why so many flourishing empires eventually start rotting from within, until someone knocks them down. So many things we view as inevitable are actually just consequences of leaders more interested in using their authority to gain or maintain position, wealth, and status rather than accomplishing what their positions were meant to do.
Status-seeking leaders have always been with us: the kleptocratic dictator who cares more about his comfort than his nation; the ancient emperor living in luxury while the people starve and the empire crumbles; the machine pol using democratic politics to enrich himself; the C-suite executive more worried about juicing next quarter’s options than making a great product; the apparatchik climbing toward the Politburo at any cost; every bureaucratic functionary protecting a fief and conscientiously executing what has always been done without ever thinking much about why; the warlord, the clever wheeler-dealer, the by-the-book middle manager, the politician who goes along to get along and hopes for a cushy seat on a corporate board. It’s the story of everyone who doesn’t know what to do with power other than enjoy the thrill of wielding it while squeezing out rewards.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for status seekers. They can make excellent administrators, managers, and executives, as long as real leaders create and enforce reasonable guardrails of behavior to keep status-seeking appetites in check. Status seekers are good at accomplishing whatever gets them status. If you build a ladder for status seekers to climb, they climb it. If you build them hoops to jump through, they skillfully jump. Like chameleons, they become whatever those setting the agenda and doling out rewards want them to be. Provide them the right goals and values and status seekers follow, because that’s the path by which they rise. While status seekers are disasters when in charge, they can be valuable additions when executing someone else’s plan.
More, these societal flaws are endemic but hardly inevitable. Not every leader is a kleptocrat. Not every politician refuses to reform. Not every corporation, government agency, or society is an inefficient mess incapable of doing what it was built to do. Some people and some institutions actually do behave competently. Some things work the way they’re supposed to work.
These are organizations led by people chasing glory.
The world has seen the passing parade of kings, warlords, emperors, khans, high priests, business titans, oligarchs, and celebrities. No one remembers most of them, because most never did anything people cared to remember. The only reason anyone will remember you in a hundred years, much less a thousand, is your actually doing something to earn admiration and respect.
Glory seekers don’t want power for its earthly rewards. They want it for its opportunities to demonstrate leadership. They crave not money, magazine covers, or fancy titles but the immortality of their names living on through history. Glory seekers see power not as an end but as a platform for achievement. They want it so they can demonstrate their worthiness to generations coming after. They hope to earn a legacy.
A status seeker might build a statue of himself in a park, taking joy in the fact that all who pass by have to recognize his greatness. That’s a pointless gesture to a glory seeker. A glory seeker knows that as soon as that hollow leader is out of power, people will simply tear the statue down, erasing him from history. A glory seeker wants people in a hundred years to choose to build a statue to him. That’s only going to happen if people in the future are genuinely thankful for what he has done.
The only way to earn respect from people in the future is to actually make the world a better place. You can wield power during life like a modern Ozymandias—to flatter, intimidate, and overawe others into pretending your deeds are worthy. None of that matters once you’re dead. After you’ve moved on, no one needs to fear or propitiate you. No one has a reason to protect your reputation. People in the future, with generations in which to scour your life for every misstep you took, will only admire you if your deeds are worthy of their admiration.
Leaders seeking glory are the only people we can truly trust with power, because it’s in their self-interest to use their power to improve the world. Glory seekers will innovate, reform, and embrace the pursuit of excellence. They will break taboos, shatter expectations, and throw off orthodoxies that no longer align with reality. They will strive to act with fairness. They will avoid corruption. They will stand up to power. They will seek to use authority not just to win praise for themselves today but to serve and lead. They’ll even give up power, rot in jail, or risk their lives to stand for something that will earn other people’s admiration. To a glory seeker, there’s no use in having wealth and power if you’re not going to use them to achieve great deeds that history will revere. That’s the same path to obscurity and oblivion as never having had power at all.
Glory is the soldier charging into enemy fire to protect his country. It’s George Washington risking his life, reputation, and property to build a new republic, then walking away from power when he could have been crowned king. It’s scientists like Galileo, who advanced the truth despite the cost. It’s activists and advocates willing to go to jail for years to stand for truth. It’s leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, who alienated his own party to push difficult reforms. It’s entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, putting his fortune behind efforts to advance humanity while knowing he’ll lose it all if they fail.
When glory seekers lead an institution, it becomes a platform for achievement. Glory seekers reform things that are broken, design things people need, and make things work in the way they’re supposed to work. They take necessary risks but not necessarily immediate credit. They seek to accomplish things that other people want and need. They try to actually embody the values other people respect. It’s not because they’re better people. In fact, many of them aren’t. It’s not goodness that dictates a self-interest in picking up the baton and leading—it’s greatness. Greatness is the only way that glory seekers can ever hope to win a taste of everlasting glory, which is what they truly crave.
Of course, there’s another group also wanting and willing to change the world: the utopians. Utopians believe something is broken with the world, that it is in some way immoral or unjust. They find it enraging that others tolerate this unrepentant immorality or even fail to see it. They need power to remake the world, to eliminate this pervasive and accepted evil, and to defeat anyone standing in the way.
While utopians, like glory seekers, want power in order to use it, their motives differ significantly. Glory seekers want to achieve ambitious things that other people want and need. That’s how your deeds win the admiration of other people and, therefore, of history. In the ancient world, when people respected martial prowess, glory seekers became conquerors like Alexander. When people in the modern world wanted civil rights and health care, glory seekers embraced those goals. Glory seekers do what others deem worthy of admiration. Utopians don’t care what others want. They’re not looking for admiration or approval. They believe they already know exactly what is broken, and they already have a plan to fix it.
Striving for glory looks outward at what others deem worthy to admire. Utopian striving looks inward, consulting only one’s own internal compass for what must be done. To glory seekers, other people are allies and the audience. To utopians, they’re minds to reshape, objects to influence, or obstacles to overcome.
Utopians can be valuable to institutions and society. Operating as critics outside the halls of power, they call attention to injustices and wrongs. Utopians force others to confront unpleasant things they don’t want to see, planting seeds that can lead us to reform. When acting in this way, as outsiders to the system, utopians became the writers, thinkers, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and activists who fought for abolition, freedom, charity, and democracy. Great reforms that made the world a better place were first spurred by utopians railing at the gates.
The trouble comes when utopians seize power themselves. That’s when utopian dreams can turn into other people’s nightmares.
Utopians aren’t actually reformers but revolutionaries. They see the world starkly, in terms of good and evil. Evil can’t be reasoned or negotiated with. It can’t be incrementally reformed. You can’t respect people defending evil or tolerate those standing in the way of its defeat. Evil can only be eradicated. That means utopians see themselves as engaged in a total war in which the only acceptable outcome is that they win and their opponents are eliminated.
That’s why utopian ambition has so often motivated zealots, dictators, and tyrants who crush lives and souls, stomping on anyone who dares to stand in the way of their sacred mission. Revolutionaries don’t seek to engage with their opponents but to break them. Revolutionaries don’t want to serve their constituents; they want to bend people to their will. Revolutionaries aren’t prepared to allow wrongs to flourish, hoping that someday people standing in the way will change their minds. Those who won’t cooperate can only be marginalized, defeated, or otherwise removed. As utopians seeking to advance their cause through power inevitably learn, the only way to bring about utopia is to become a tyrant.
The Inquisition. Robespierre. Che Guevara. Mussolini. Bin Laden. Mao. Pol Pot. They all believed they were saving humanity, or at least some part. They believed their opponents had to be eliminated, if necessary destroyed. They believed the human cost would be worth it when utopia arrived. Regardless of the merits of their cause, letting utopians take power is dangerous.
Getting the Alignment Right
The only power alignment that leads to human flourishing is obvious. We want glory seekers as leaders. It’s not because they’re somehow better people. Lyndon Johnson was selfish, crude, corrupt, power-hungry, and deeply racist. Yet when he got the chance, he staked his career on passing the Civil Rights Act in order to build a legacy. You can count on glory seekers to do what’s necessary, even in the face of sometimes unappealing character or beliefs, because you know they want most to prove their greatness to history.
We want companies led by Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, or Elon Musk—people looking not only for profit but also to make amazing things, build a legacy, change the world for the better. We want schools led by reformers looking to discover new ways to teach. We want universities run not by people looking to raise money and negotiate football television contracts but by those driven to educate leaders and generate groundbreaking discoveries. We want films made by people who want to tell great stories, not just make a buck. We want things run by people chasing glory and a legacy, even if dutifully administered by people wanting only to get ahead.
The status seekers become the workers and administrators. As long as glory seekers set the rules, status seekers will work eagerly to help make things better in order to secure their own promotions up the status ladder. When glory seekers control promotions and rewards, status seekers model themselves accordingly. Of course, if the wrong people are handing out the rewards, status seekers will gladly follow them, too. Many ordinary Germans who carried out Nazi plans weren’t Nazis, just status seekers bent on rising in a society in which Nazis made the rules.
Utopians should be encouraged to criticize from outside the system, identifying wrongs and pointing out opportunities for reform. But we should never allow them to seize power for themselves. No matter how attractive utopia may sound, it’s the nature of utopians to use their power like tyrants. It’s simply too much risk to take.
For most of its history, America followed the optimal arrangement. We put people seeking glory at the pinnacle of our republic. Our Founding generation risked the noose to build a new republic that history would remember. The first generation of homegrown Americans—Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay—obsessed over building the foundation of a nation. Lincoln led us through a civil war to end slavery. William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and the Roosevelts reformed us into the modern world. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan fixated on their achievements. Clinton, the Bushes, and Obama all mused often about their legacy. Outside of an occasional misstep like Warren Harding, America put leaders chasing glory at the center of our democracy.
America was, as we liked to put it, a serious country. When we faced a crisis, our leaders ran toward it, seeing an opportunity to prove their worth. When we faced new problems, they sought to devise solutions to prove they would and could. We achieved amazing things. We built the first modern democratic republic and spread its Enlightenment ideals around the globe. We braved a bloody civil war to end the scourge of slavery. We invented marvels. We navigated economic revolutions. We emerged as a true and, on balance, benign world power. We constantly improved and instituted reforms. We built a rocket to the moon. Our leaders sought to achieve great things that would earn their legacy.
Now we face another onslaught of unfamiliar problems. We cringe amid an economic transformation as great as the Industrial Revolution. We’re witnessing the birth of new technologies from artificial intelligence to gene editing and drones. Cultural change is moving at a pace faster than most can process. We face disruptive problems without easy answers, from climate change to the rise of China. We’re in the midst of an overdue reckoning on race and social equality. On top of that, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and an unstable democracy.
In a serious country, one would expect a national mobilization to fix these problems. One might expect that we would bring together brilliant minds to discover new ideas and devise new policies to address the new problems of this new age. We would experiment, refining and discarding ideas that didn’t work and doubling down on those that did. We would put aside short-term goals, old orthodoxies, and petty disagreements. We would meet this moment with grit and steel and sober professionalism because that’s what America does.
What have we done instead? For years, we sought to ignore our problems, burying our heads in outdated orthodoxies. We fueled our pettiest resentments. We turned government into a game and told people what they wanted to hear instead of what was true. We chose time and again to do the wrong and easy thing instead of what was necessary and right. We cowered before power. We rewarded bullying and anger. We squandered faith and trust. Then, we elected a quintessential status-seeking President in Donald Trump.
We picked a President who wanted the office not to lead us through this moment, despite his vague slogan of making America great again. He wanted a title, a military plane, and a brass band to feed his narcissism. We watched as he surrounded himself with status-chasing lackeys willing to say and do whatever would keep them in their positions, even things they once stood against. As the wind changed direction, people who stood for one thing when that was the path to power, like Lindsay Graham, changed direction to stand for others, while those charged with guarding our republic’s institutions, like Mitch McConnell, sacrificed them instead for short-term goals.
It was the final culmination of a long decline. Facing perils, we have dithered. We act as if the Cold War-era global order still exists. We make noises about issues like climate change but do nothing. We can’t even pretend to protect ourselves from a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of American in a year. Our leaders, repeating outdated mantras, act as if none of this is happening. They care only about jockeying for status and position.
That isn’t what a serious country does. That isn’t what America used to be. Where are the new ideas? Where are the great projects of reform? Who is willing to take great risks and break old orthodoxy to win the future? Where, in other words, are our glory seekers?
How to Fix What Went Wrong
Why did America choose glory seekers for its leaders in the past? In part, it was good fortune. On the one hand, our belief in individualism, the pioneer spirit, and a capitalist economy cooperated to draw talented, ambitious status seekers away from government. For most of world history, if you were ambitious and wanted to rise, you went to the seat of power—the king’s court, the oligarch’s palace, or the party headquarters. In America, you were better off some place like Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or founding something on Main Street.
On the other hand, our Founders designed our constitutional republic to frustrate utopians. It granted utopians the freedom to criticize and even drive reform but built safeguards that made it impossible for them to rule. These lucky breaks helped draw the wrong leaders away from government, leaving the path clear for the most talented and ambitious glory seekers to reach the top. Less talented status seekers and utopians who still made their way to government had to content themselves with occupying its lower rungs, executing plans glory seekers had designed.
In this age of global markets and mega-corporations, it may be harder now for someone without elite credentials or connections to rise. Many Americans have begun to doubt that America offers the same opportunities it used to for ordinary people in the private world. We’ve also chipped away at the norms and safeguards that kept utopians from power. Sweeping executive orders, a weaker Congress, and a growing imperial presidency all contribute to the idea that winning an election gives one the right to rule—that “elections have consequences.” We also live in a very disruptive moment in which many Americans seem to have lost faith in our republic. They have grown suspicious of liberal democracy and become sympathetic to ideas of moral revolution.
Yet there’s something more important. When we were a young dynamic country, we knew that democracy wasn’t natural and our republic was fragile. We knew a republic took a special kind of citizen different from the subject of a monarchy or dictatorship to work. When the people become the government, national success depends on what they do. Democratic citizens can’t allow their passions to rule their reason. They can’t use democratic power to loot, unfairly punish opponents, or advance shortsighted goals that leave the nation weaker over time. They have to love democracy and see one another as engaged in a common endeavor to create long-term success. They have to see democratic citizenship as not just a privilege but a duty and responsibility. America’s Founders called this “republican virtue,” meaning the traits of character a democratic people need to sustain a democracy over time.
Republican virtue means putting our democratic republic first. It means that when dangerous challenges arrive, we put our personal desires aside to protect our common interests as a nation. It means we do the right thing and the hard thing instead of the comfortable and easy thing. The only leaders who could truly give us that were ones chasing after glory. As long as we put our republic first, we naturally placed glory seekers at the helm.
Perhaps that’s the true source of the problem, the thing that now has changed. Maybe we’re no longer sure we want the grueling burdens democracy requires, no longer willing to restrain our passions or compromise with people with whom we disagree. We’re impatient with the slow, hard, slog that democratic politics requires. We’re less willing to accept that we can’t get everything we want because our fellow Americans have an equal right to rule. Perhaps we just no longer want the responsibility of fixing our own problems, as self-government requires. We long for someone to fix them for us, as if we were mere subjects of a king.
There are many explanations for why the Roman Republic declined into a stagnant empire and then crumbled altogether. Most of them share a common theme: Romans stopped acting like Romans. The Romans who built a republic inherited an empire with different values and beliefs. When Roman citizens stopped acting like Romans, Roman institutions designed around Roman sensibilities no longer worked.
Perhaps we’re no longer acting like Americans, at least the Americans of the past. The scrappy people who built a new republic to protect their liberty hugging the edge of a continent are now stewards of a great power. Our power and wealth have made us complacent. We take stability, prosperity, and democracy for granted. We’re haunted by our past mistakes. We no longer feel like we’re a shining city on a hill. We wonder whether we even still want to be.
If we want to restore the America we used to be, we need to act like the Americans we once were. We have to believe again in the promise of our republic. We must see ourselves again as a scrappy, innovative society of risk-taking pioneers striving to sustain a republic and improve it over time. We must believe again in the promise of the Enlightenment and republican democracy to build a society that one day fulfills its goal of providing equal opportunity, liberty, and justice for all. We must believe we are still a serious country carrying on a worthy experiment for humanity, then act like it when we vote and otherwise participate in self-government. We must believe again that we’re defenders of a noble experiment that’s far from perfect but might one day get close if we maintain our faith in this project that is America.
If we want to restore our nation, we can’t continue to reward selfish status seekers spreading stagnation and corruption, and certainly not at the top. Nor can we court utopians, no matter how alluring their siren call. We need once again to be a republic that values glory. We need more Washingtons, Hamiltons, Clays, and Lincolns, Bryans and Roosevelts, too. Send the status seekers to Wall Street, where they can enjoy their wealth. Let the utopians raise their voices over the injustices that others refuse to see. Just make sure the people leading our republic are doing it for glory and to build a stronger legacy for America.
Frank DiStefano is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and author of The Next Realignment: Why America’s Parties are Crumbling and What Happens Next (2019). He has been a congressional aide, presidential campaign official, and Washington-based attorney.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe