New Research Explains Why We Are Attracted To 'Strongman' Leaders
A professor tells us why we often give tyrannical leaders a free pass.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 19, 2023
A new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics explains why we like our leaders to be rough and ruthless. This instinct, according to lead author Professor Agata Mirowska, is informed by cultural, religious, societal, and familial factors.
"Leaders who have negative antisocial traits still seem to be attractive to followers," explains Mirowska. "Knowing that authoritarianism has been a problem since the dawn of history, our main question was why, despite all of the accolades we give to good leaders, are people still willing to follow tyrants?"
The study, undertaken by Mirowska with Raymond Chiu and Rick Hackett, identified seven adjectives that describe tyrannical leaders. They are:
"These traits may seem anathema to the traits of good everyday supervisors and executives, but if one takes a moment to consider the global figures that capture the imagination of millions in disruptive industries, entertainment, sport, and ultra-conservative politics, these traits are quite prescient," highlights Mirowska.
The study zoomed in on three possible explanations for the mysterious allure of tyrannical leaders:
- 'Ideal leader' prototypes. Mirowska explains that our 'prototype' of what a leader should look like is informed quite heavily by our past experiences, cultural upbringing, and general life exposure (including personal experiences and pop culture). If we are looking for a leader, we tend to pick the candidate who matches this prototype most closely. Often, this prototype adheres to a 'strongman' personality.
- Moral foundations. The Moral Foundations Theory, advanced by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, holds that all human beings judge the quality of anything (including leadership) through the lens of two basic categories: individual foundations (putting individual needs in primary focus) and binding foundations (putting the community needs in primary focus). Mirowska's study hypothesized that a higher follower endorsement of binding foundations would make tyrannical leaders more appealing due to their defensive tendencies towards their own group's interests.
- Worldviews. If people, to a large extent, see the world around them as dangerous, unpredictable, and threatening, it might predispose them to choose a tyrannical leader who, although rough and problematic, may be perceived as being able to do a better job maintaining the safety of the group.
Surveying over 1100 North American adults, Mirowska's study landed on two key findings:
- The willingness to endorse a tyrannical leader is not a foolish or evil choice. For some people, due to their upbringing, life experiences and beliefs, following a tyrannical leader is a sincere and sensible choice for themselves and the group they belong to, especially if they view the world as a dangerous place.
- This tendency is more likely to be present in men. This is most likely because of society's portrayal of strong leaders as tough, often masculine, figures willing to do the dirty work of protecting the group.
The question remains, however, how do we move past our attraction to tyrants to make space for healthier, more collaborative forms of leadership that are just as, if not more, effective? To address this question, Mirowska gives the following advice to anyone who finds themselves endorsing tyrannical leaders:
- Reflect on your attraction. Oftentimes, our attraction to a leader is rooted in a figure in our past – a parent, businessperson, coach, or just someone that others looked up to – that exhibited this brand of leadership.
- Focus on results, not personality. Instead of personality, it is useful to focus on what a leader can get done, given their specific set of qualities. Try to explore whether the leader is even achieving the objective they promised to achieve. If they are, try to find out if there were more negative than positive consequences of the decisions they made.
- Assess if your endorsement is based on limited information. Take stock of all the information you have on the leader and whether it tells you enough about them and their leadership potential. It will help rule out the possibility of you endorsing the leader simply because they match the prototype of an 'ideal leader' in your mind.
- Consider socially constructive ways to accomplish the same goals. Finding role models who achieve the same things as a tyrannical leader but possess more constructive personality traits can do a world of good. Not only will you be in good hands, it will also help you shift your worldview in a positive direction.
"We believe that the key is self-awareness and reflection. This will help people consciously reformulate their subconscious leader prototypes," she concludes.
A full interview with Dr. Agata Mirowska discussing her research can be found here: Why are we so attracted to tyrants?