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Power beats prestige in uncertain times

13 Jun 2017

When alpha leaders have the most winning appeal

trump-news-story

The rise of political populism in the 21st century continues to support the Darwinian maxim that “the strong survive” and make the best leaders during challenging times.

Research conducted by Niro Sivanathan, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and PhD candidate Hemant Kakkar reveals that in times of uncertainty people choose dominant leaders over respected and admired candidates.

The paper, ‘When the appeal of a dominant leader is greater than a prestige leader’, also reflects on and is informed by evolutionary theory, in which dominance and prestige are seen as dual routes to the attainment of status and leadership.

“The research offers a situational and psychological explanation for when and why dominant leaders, including President Trump, are preferred over respected and admired candidates,” said Dr Sivanathan.

“While it might not always be consistently true that 'nice guys finish last’, we maintain that certain communities, when faced with the threat of uncertainty, will prefer assertive over esteemed individuals as their leadership choice,” added Kakkar.

The researchers tested their hypotheses in the US, employing statistical analysis of zip codes nested in each of the 50 states. They found that when economic uncertainty in a particular zip code was counted in, there was increased financial insecurity, dominant leaders were significantly preferred and prestigious leaders were overtly less desirable.

They then replicated these findings using objective macroeconomic indicators of economic uncertainty using World Bank Data, comprising more than 138,000 individuals across 69 countries over a 20-year window.

With populism on the rise and many people struggling to comprehend what it all means, Sivanathan and Kakkar offer an alternative to political- and personality-led characterisations.

“Guided by evolutionary theory for leadership emergence we set out to empirically examine the recent spate of global appeal for dominant leaders,” said Dr Sivanathan.

 “Our central assertion is that the psychological threat imposed by one’s environment increases the appeal of an external dominant agent who we believe is better capable of lessening these threats and the abiding sense that personal control that has been lost,” said Kakkar.

Their conclusion: given certain conditions – economic stress, concerns about terrorism – people will prefer a leader who is perceived to be decisive, authoritative, and dominant over one who is  simply respected and admired.