Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Why We Love (and Hate) Our Leaders

How can we love leaders today and hate them tomorrow?

Americans (and most Westerners) have a love affair with our leaders. We place them on a pedestal and obsessively follow their every move. But just like a love affair, feelings can quickly sour when we feel the leader has let us down, failed, or broken faith. Consider former President George W. Bush. After 9/11 Bush's approval ratings were at an all-time high, but after the Iraq war and the Katrina disaster, they fell to a record low.

Why do we so revere (and spurn) our national leaders? One important reason is that we are a very leader-centric culture. We have what Jim Meindl calls a "Romance of Leadership." We believe leaders and leadership are important and we give them more credit than they are due for successes and failures. Witness the skyrocketing compensation of corporate CEOs. They are revered, we believe they have a major hand in outcomes, and thus their outrageous salaries are believed to be justified.

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Not all cultures are as leader-centric as the USA. My colleagues Nurcan Ensari and Susan Murphy conducted a simple study in the U.S. and in Turkey. They created scenarios where companies succeeded or failed, and they asked students to decide how much the success or failure was due to the leader. U.S. students gave much more credit to the leader than did Turkish students. Turkish students were more likely to see the outcome as a "team effort."

This" leader-centrism" also causes us to overlook the contributions of followers (although recent years has seen greater interest in the role that followers play in the leader-follower equation). Ironically, it is the support of followers that creates the leader and allows him or her to flourish or fail. The 2008 election was a good example of this process: Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, was identified by followers as the "prototype" of a leader who represented change. The support for Obama grew - fueled by the speed of the Internet - and he rose from a relative novice politician to U.S. President.

Another reason that we become obsessed with our political and business leaders is the role that celebrity plays. As politicians and CEOs become celebrities, we follow their every move in the media, and as much as we want to love and admire celebrities, like fickle lovers, our love turns to hate when they fall off the pedestal we had placed them on.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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