History is riddled with so-called “great” leaders…Caligula, Queen Mary the First, Mussolini, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein.
Which begs the question, could we be better off without them?
UBC professor and author of the book Take Pride – Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success Jessica Tracy says although there’s some truth behind that, it’s not necessarily so extreme.
“What I would say is I think you’re partially right. And the reason I say that is because we found in our research that there are two very different kinds of leaders, and my bet is that your negative associations or your negative feelings about leaders are actually about one kind of leader in particular; what she calls dominant leaders.
She explains these dominant leaders are those who force others to do what they want; usually using fear or threats to get ahead.
Tracy says these tactics of dominance and aggression are very effective in terms of getting power.
But she says there is another kind of leadership that is just as effective: prestige leadership. These types of leaders get ahead by offering something of value to the group.
“Typically these are people who are smart or competent or wise or have some sort of skill that’s useful to others and they’re willing for others to learn something useful to them. They’re willing for others to get what they need and they teach them and let them follow them. They’re just as likely to get influence over a group as the dominant leaders are, but the difference is they get their power because others want to give it to them – people willingly defer to a prestigious leader.”
But what about political leaders? Tracy says Donald Trump is a great example of the forces at play here.
“You know I think this is fascinating and I talk a lot in my book about Donald Trump as someone who very effectively wields dominance. It’s easy to explain in the primary elections what was happening where he actually intimidated people who would take him on…even in the Republican Party. Anytime anyone critiqued him he would just lash out incredibly angrily, he belittled them, he denigrated them, he’d make fun of them, he called them names, he’d really destroy their reputation and so that’s classic dominance where you’re intimidating people until they back down, and it generally worked.”
Tracy says that his dominant style made him get votes not out of fear, but because people saw themselves as belonging to groups that were competing with other groups.
“In those situations we often do want a dominant leader because we know they’re going to fight really hard for our group, sort of like ‘yeah, he’s a bully, he’s a jerk, he’s arrogant, but he’s going to be our bully and that’s what we need in that situation.’ So my thinking is – that’s how he won; it’s not that they didn’t realize he was aggressive and intimidating and threat-inducing and all these things that many people don’t like, it’s because, ‘that’s exactly what we want, somebody who’s going to be a tough fighter on behalf of us.’”
Should we be instinctively mistrustful of people who want to accumulate power and become leaders? Tracy says no. She says prestigious leaders might want power but they are also empathetic, aiming to use their position to make positive changes.
And as for dominant leaders?
“That’s more problematic. The psychology that underlies dominance is really about narcissism and it’s a particular kind of hubristic pride; it’s much more of a sense of arrogance and grandiosity and egotism – a lot of self-focus and self-centeredness and that’s what drives the search for dominance. It’s really about people caring about themselves, about getting ahead at the expense of others, using others for their own means. They tend to be manipulative as well as aggressive and put others down if that’s what it takes to get ahead.”
So no, you don’t have to be a bully or a sociopath to be a good leader. She says prestigious leaders can achieve great things without having to diminish others.