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Don’t Be Surprised by Bad Bosses: Good Leaders Are a Miracle

Leader emergence is not the same as leader effectiveness.

Key points

  • Leaders are often selected via biased processes, such as physical beauty.
  • Followers are often attracted to leaders with the wrong traits, such as psychopathy.
  • Organizations often promote those with strong technical skills while ignoring the requirement of soft skills.

Co-authored by Dr. Thomas Kelemen.

Every few weeks, breaking news features leaders who have been accused of lying (think George Santos), accused of committing fraud (think Sam Bankman-Fried), or acted in any number of unethical or undesirable ways. This never-ending cycle often leaves followers scratching their heads and asking, “really, is this the best we have to offer?” But, unfortunately, a bad leader is normal. By this point, we really shouldn’t be that surprised. And here’s why—leader effectiveness is not the same as leader emergence.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Plato put forward the metaphor of the Ship of State to explain our incapacity to select good leaders. He explained, “imagine … a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better.” Plato suggests crew members overlook a more competent leader in favor of one who “looks the part.”

Sadly, research routinely validates Plato’s hypothesis. Physical stature, facial cues, and good health, among others, are all factors that influence leader selection. This bias towards “more desirable” physical features appears to be embedded in human cognition.

Case in point, in an experimental study, children were shown candidate profiles from prior elections and were tasked to choose a boat captain in a hypothetical scenario. The children’s choices statistically aligned with the election winner. If even innocent children struggle with this bias, we should stop wondering why we keep getting leader selection wrong.

This systematic bias in favor of the glamorous and good-looking isn’t the only problem. Humans are attracted to personality traits that fundamentally equate to poor leadership. For example, research finds that individuals who are high in narcissism or psychopathy are more likely to emerge as a leader. (Hint: this is bad). Conversely, those who score high on honesty and humility do not emerge as leaders, despite the overwhelming evidence that expressions of humility are highly beneficial for individual followers, teams, and organizations.

Compounding the problems listed above is the Peter Principle, the notion that organizations adopt practices and procedures that result in employees rising to their level of incompetence. This principle has alternatively been referred to as the Dilbert Principle based on Scott Adam’s compilation of cartoons.

Every day, companies promote qualified software developers without realizing that being good at programming (hard skills) is not the same as knowing how to handle team conflict (soft skills). We rarely wait for the demonstration of leadership behaviors before we give someone a leadership title. Rather, we base our leadership promotions based on success in previous roles, which may or may not have anything to do with leading others.

In sum, rather than lamenting the exposure of another terrible leader, we ought to celebrate when we discover a good one. Given the aforementioned obstacles, the true miracle is when leader emergence aligns with leader effectiveness. From Angela Merkle’s steadied leadership of Germany to Jacinda Ardern’s self-awareness to step down as New Zealand’s Prime Minster, finding a good leader is worth getting excited about.

Dr. Thomas Klark Kelemen is an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University. His research focuses on leadership and work-family dynamics.

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