The Problem with Leaders

Why we rarely get the leaders we deserve.

Posted Apr 04, 2014

It’s probably not escaped your attention by now that many of the world’s leaders are not particularly nice people. Without wishing to single anyone out, one leader who is causing the world trouble at the moment, President Putin, is a typical example: ruthlessly obsessed with maintaining his own power and furthering his personal and his country’s interests (as he perceives them) in apparent disregard for the rights of others. There are many more extreme examples, both historical and contemporary—President Mugabe, Colonel Gaddafi, Margaret Thatcher, and so on. We might like to believe that the democratic institutions of the West protect us from the excesses of psychopathic leaders, but perhaps these institutions—and the spotlight of the modern media—simply mean that leaders become more adept at projecting an image of fairness to hide their steely self-centredness and lack of empathy. Or in some cases, leaders may function as approachable and aimiable figureheads, with cold and ruthless idealogues behind them, holding the real reins of power. 

I would argue that this isn’t simply a problem in politics but in every area of society: the people who take up the highest status positions in any organisation are often people with a low level of empathy, who are liable to behave callously and ruthlessly. In other words, power tends to fall into the hands of the very people who should not have it.

This is a sweeping generalisation, of course—many people rise into high status positions due to ability, privilege, or an idealistic or altruistic impulse to ‘make a difference.’ However, there is a good reason why this is generally true, which could be expressed as a psychological ‘law’: the desire for power is inversely proportional to a person’s level of empathy. The drive for personal power and the ability to empathise are mutually exclusive.

Empathy and The Desire for Power

In my view, empathy is more than just the ability to imagine what people might be feeling, it’s the ability to actually ‘feel with’ other people, to emotionally connect with them and sense what they’re experiencing. Empathy brings a concern for the well-being and the rights of others, a sense of responsibility and fairness. It generates compassion, which in turns leads to altruism. It’s the source of the positive qualities which leaders ideally should have, but which they usually lack.

Empathy and the desire for power exclude each other because the latter stems from self-centredness, a psychological orientation where the person views reality solely through the prism of their own needs and desires, and where their primary need is to satisfy these—which is, of course, what power and status enable them to do. People with a high level of empathy and responsibility, on the other hand, are usually not self-centred, and therefore have little desire to increase their personal power. Rather than setting themselves apart, they prefer to be ‘on the ground,’ interacting and connecting with people. They may even refuse the offer of a high status position, because they’re aware that higher status will disconnect them (although for a non-empathic person, that is part of its appeal). So this leaves the high status roles open to the self-centred and ruthless.

Let me repeat that these are generalizations—I wouldn’t want to offend anyone who has risen to their high status position through ability or altruism (and I certainly wouldn’t want to offend Vladimir Putin), but in an ideal world, anyone who shows a strong drive for power should automatically be barred from any position of power. (The anthropologist James Woodburn gives several examples of egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups—such as the Hazda and !Kung of Africa—where this system is actually practised.) Or perhaps more realistically, the job application process for every high status position—including government posts—should include an empathy test. If the potential prime minister, chief executive or head teacher did not score at least an average level of empathy, then they would be barred from the position.

Every present day politician or chief executive should take the test, too—and my guess is that most of them would be out of a job by the end of the week.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and Back to

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