Dark Attraction – Why are we drawn to leaders who are not worth following?
Not all leaders are worth following - and yet too often we follow them anyway. Read on insights into why we follow them, and what you can do about it.
Like a massive thunderstorm rolling in, there is something ominous and fascinating about truly “bad” leaders – leaders who are not worth following – and our dark attraction to these leaders. We can (rarely) see the writing on the wall before it is too late. They use manipulation to get their way, they lie to cover their tracks, they publicly berate others. And yet they rise through the ranks… and we let them.
Eventually, we are left wondering how they ended up in such a position of influence, and we kick ourselves for ever having trusted or followed them. Harvard Business Review recently asked the question, “Why do we fall for charismatic narcissists?” Research on bad leadership has grown exponentially over the past decade or more. And from Ken Lay to Bernie Madoff, Jim Jones to Adolf Hitler, it seems history is riddled with highly influential, and highly destructive leaders.
Why do these kinds of leaders rise to power? Why do we let them?
These questions are real problems for organizations, especially as our information-rich culture enables us to shine a light on even the most minor of leadership missteps and scandals. Here are a few initial answers to get us started.
1. Most of us don’t actually want to be leaders. Leadership is hard. It requires a willingness to make tough calls, take risks, take charge, and even to fail. Many of us are turned off by all of that. For better or worse, people who possess these characteristics tend to step up and fill vacuums of power.
2. We romanticize leadership. Humans are wired for self-preservation and risk aversion. As a result, we look for the biggest, strongest, smartest, most dynamic people to lead us. We look for leaders with “big” personalities, only to find that excessive extraversion can be sociopathy, excessive empathy can be Machiavellianism, excessive confidence can be narcissism, excessive poise can be psychopathy, and so on.
3. Authority begets authority. We are also wired to trust authority. We assume leaders have earned a position of authority by possessing an abundance of the skills and characteristics we look for in a leader, including a desire to serve. Even when there is evidence to the contrary, we assume that our leaders “know best.”
4. Time and opportunity reveal character. On the surface, good and bad leaders look similar. Yet it is often not until they have had the time to gain trust, build power, and earn opportunities that the dark intentions surface. On the other hand, the notion of some bad behaviors (e.g., embezzlement) might not cross a leader’s mind until s/he is presented with such an opportunity. As the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
5. Pressure also reveals character. All else being equal, even well-intentioned leaders can fall prey to “dark” leadership tendencies. When stressed, we go into “fight or flight” mode, and we lose some control over our actions. We revert into a more instinctual mode of being, and in these moments, our personality (including its “dark” side) can take over. Leaders in high-pressure situations are more likely to unconsciously act out the extreme parts of their personality, even if these actions may not be helpful to themselves or others.
Our research at Leadership Worth Following, LLC suggests that while these dynamics are difficult to manage, we can leverage the science of organizations and leadership to help predict the Character to Lead. In future posts, we will continue to unravel this mystery, focusing on, among other things, how we can better avoid or at least mitigate our Dark Attraction to destructive leaders.