Why Are We So Attracted To Tyrants?

Professor Agata Mirowska explains why we sometimes elect the harshest people to lead us.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 12, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics attempts to understand our tendency to view domineering and selfish individuals as potentially good leaders.

I recently spoke to Dr. Agata Mirowska, a faculty member at NEOMA Business School in Mont-Saint-Aignan, France, to break down the logic behind this tendency. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to pick peoples' attraction to tyrannical leaders as the topic for your study?

My co-researchers, Raymond B. Chiu and Rick Hackett, and I were exploring the literature on morality and leadership and noticed something interesting about how the "ideal" leader is perceived: leaders who have negative, antisocial traits still seem to be attractive to followers.

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 are still willing to follow tyrants.

When former President Donald Trump initially burst onto the American political scene, our research took a completely new turn, literally playing out before our eyes.

What qualities make up a tyrannical leader, within the purview of your research?

We based our definition of a tyrannical leader on a model that identified seven adjectives that were emblematic of a tyrannical leader:

  1. Domineering
  2. Pushy
  3. Dominant
  4. Manipulative
  5. Conceited
  6. Selfish
  7. Loud

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 worldwide, these traits are quite prescient.

Implicit leadership theory, Moral Foundations Theory, and Belief in a Dangerous World are three pillars on which your hypothesis rested. Could you give readers a brief overview of each and how they informed your study?

Implicit leadership theory: According to implicit leadership theory, we all have prototypes of what a "leader" looks like in our minds. These prototypes are based on our past experiences, cultural upbringings, and what we see in the world around us (which can include personal influences as well as popular culture, political figures, etc.). When we are faced with people in a "leadership" position or vying for one, how closely they match our prototype will dictate our propensity to label them as a "leader" and therefore be willing to follow them. We were specifically interested in what leads someone to see tyrannical traits as befitting of an effective "leader."

Moral foundations theory: MFT holds that there are five basic foundations, which all humans use to judge the quality of something — be it situations or behaviors. Advanced by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, these five foundations are based on challenges faced by early human societies and served to direct behavior in such a way that the community would survive and thrive. The foundations can be grouped into two categories:

  1. Individualizing foundations (care, fairness), which put the individual as the moral focus (i.e., are individual people being protected and treated fairly?)
  2. Binding foundations (respect for authority, loyalty to the group, sanctity/purity), which put the community as the moral focus (i.e., are group-level hierarchies, loyalties, and traditions being respected?).

Researchers like Haidt note that left-right, liberal-conservative, as well as religious ideologies are manifestations of such moral differences, but the consensus is that such differences are rooted in more primal concerns about the individual versus the group and result in differing outcomes on a range of social issues.

What attracted us to this theory as a potential explanation for the endorsement of the tyrannical prototype is that the weight placed on these foundations differs based on cultural factors — individuals growing up in different subcultures, with different histories and narratives passed down through generations, will develop different strengths of endorsement on these five foundations.

Given this understanding, we wondered whether a high follower endorsement of the binding foundations might make tyrannical leaders appear more acceptable, as such leaders would be more likely to exhibit traits that show they can defend group-level interests if necessary.

Belief in a dangerous world: This is not a theory so much as an individual difference, which measures the extent to which individuals see the world around them as dangerous, threatening, and unpredictable.

This was relevant as we thought that the more people see the world as a dangerous, threatening place, the more they may be willing to accept a tyrannical leader who, although potentially unpleasant and maybe harmful to individuals, would be able to keep the overall group safe. Importantly, this kind of belief is based on perception and we can see that efforts to externalize blame for social ills (e.g., blaming COVID-19 as the "China virus") perpetuates the narrative that ultimately problems are caused by foreign others, not members within.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say were your key findings?

We conducted a survey where we asked over 1,100 adults living and working in North America about their moral foundations endorsement, beliefs about how dangerous the world is, and their endorsement of the adjectives making up the tyrannical leader profile.

Our main findings were that individuals who hold a stronger belief that the world is dangerous tend to endorse the binding foundations more strongly, and this is associated with a greater endorsement of tyrannical leadership traits. This relationship was particularly strong for men, who were more likely to prefer tyrannical traits the more they saw the world as dangerous and endorsed the binding foundations.

We identified two important takeaways from these results:

  1. The first is that the willingness to follow a tyrannical leader does not arise from some deficit within the followers — it is not that people are bad, stupid, or selfish and hoping to "ride the coattails" of a tyrannical leader for their own gain. For some people, given their socialization, experiences, and beliefs, supporting a seemingly tyrannical leader may reflect a well-intentioned effort to achieve the best outcome possible for themselves and their group in light of what they see as a dangerous world.
  2. Secondly, men appear to be especially susceptible to this train of thought (i.e., that a tough leader is needed in dangerous situations to protect the group interests), which may reflect societies' portrayal of strong leaders as tough, often masculine, figures willing to do the "dirty work" of protecting the group, even if it means some individuals get hurt or ignored in the process.

Would you have any advice for people who find themselves drawn to tyrannical leaders?

We believe that the key is self-awareness and reflection as to why someone appeals to a follower as a leader. This will help them consciously reformulate their subconscious prototypes.

First, we would advise the person to take a step back and reflect on why they find themselves attracted to this individual. Can they identify a leader in their past who has modeled a similar form of leadership? This could be a parent, businessperson, coach, or just someone that others looked up to and who therefore was accorded a certain status.

Second, they should reflect on why they feel that this individual is best suited to lead in the given situation. What do they think they can accomplish, given their specific traits — especially the ones that others may find unappealing? And what may be some of the negative consequences of this behavior, even if the main objective is achieved?

Third, they can assess the extent to which their conclusions are based on limited information. If the information is scarce, they would be wise to seek better information or at least be more skeptical. The reason that we hold prototypes in our minds is that we often know very little about what leaders are really like, and therefore we rely on the leader's superficial traits to assess leadership potential.

Finally, they may be surprised to learn that there are alternate ways to achieve these ends. They can look for a role model with more constructive traits who can accomplish the same tasks.

For example, imagine someone who supports a candidate for team leader who is loud, pushy, and manipulative. Maybe they saw similar behaviors in a community organizer, who was able to secure key resources for their cause, and presumably, this candidate could achieve similar "wins" for the team.

This may be the case in the short run, but how could this leadership style harm relationships between the leader and other leaders or with other teams? Could this behavior sour the leader's relationship with higher management at some point, or even spill over into intra-team situations that may damage relationships amongst the team members themselves? Could other skills or resources, such as negotiation, social capital, and collaboration, accomplish the same goals? And can they identify someone who is closer to this ideal of a leader?

Do you have any practical takeaways for organizations that want to inoculate themselves against this particular brand of leadership?

Firstly, the followers most vulnerable to a tyrannical leadership approach are those who perceive danger or uncertainty in the world around them. Therefore, organizations (or society in general) can empower individuals and create a culture of transparency, accountability, and equality, which may alleviate some of these negative perceptions.

Secondly, one must avoid the amplification of soundbites and anecdotes that fuel the perception that one needs to be "tough" to get things done. Tyrannical leaders will often play on the fear of their audience, and we need to avoid sensationalizing this and giving these individuals more attention than they deserve. This is something that the media were complicit in with former President Donald Trump — the more they reported on his rude outbursts, the more they highlighted the tyrannical traits that people would use to infer his leadership ability.

Similarly, the role models that organizations choose to anchor their narratives and their brand, the stories that are passed down as company folklore, and the behaviors that are rewarded in real-time will all send signals about the type of individuals that are desired in leadership positions and, by extension, those who will not "make it."

Such actions are as important as words — a company can claim to have an honest and caring culture, but if company legend still speaks of the manipulative founder who did whatever was necessary or the "shark" or "bulldog" executive who gets the big bonuses or promotions, then any benevolent intentions will fall flat.

Finally, we can all play a role in minimizing gender-related leadership biases, particularly as they relate to tyrannical leaders. The common notion that men need to be tough to lead is harmful — both to leaders who do not fit the prototype and to organizations subjected to male authoritarianism and tyranny.

Similarly, by equating effective leadership with toughness or masculinity, we risk losing out on the benefits of female leadership. Women engaging in the same type of tyrannical behaviors may be viewed more negatively than their male counterparts. These are beliefs and examples that start very early on, so we as parents, educators, and community leaders can work to dispel them at all ages and levels.