The Psychology of Leadership


John Wright


This article is not about how to become a good leader. It is about the underlying psychology of our most powerful leaders, and the intent is to help us understand why those people behave and make decisions as they do. Note that it is not appropriate to dump all leaders into one huge bucket for definitional purposes, for their situational behaviors span everything from awful to wonderful, and there are marked individual differences in motivation, morality and style. Leaders also evolve and/or devolve.

We thus start with the consideration of what types of people become leaders. If we toss in all the aspects of life that cause any of us to become what we become as adults, it should be clear that those who become leaders have a special set of inherited aptitudes and developmental circumstances that allow them to achieve significant societal power as they live their adult years. Of all the many aptitudes that all of us might have, a potential leader must demonstrate two essential characteristics. The first of these is the ability to interest or motivate other people into doing what the potential leader wants them to do. The second is the potential leader's interest or motivation to spend significant time in activities that focus on directing the activities of other people. Aptitude to sense what drives other people and to experiment successfully with that environment while young leads, of course, to wanting to repeat that scenario, for it becomes obvious that others can provide for the potential leaders wants and needs. Leaders tend not to derive much value from doing private things as individuals. They work through (direct) other people and derive their own sense of success by so doing.

The converse of the above characteristics defines those individuals who, regardless of their other accomplishments in life, will not become leaders. One might argue that all of us migrate towards activities in which we find ourselves to be successful, and that could mean that leaders lack certain aptitudes that might cause them to pursue activities other than leadership, e.g., scientific research. It certainly is obvious that most of us determine early in life that we will not become leaders, for whatever set of reasons we sense accurately, or invent to assuage our insecurities about our abilities or presumed opportunities.

The origins and education of leaders varies enormously throughout history. There are literally so many variables within the individual and within the society they occupy while achieving adulthood that it would be foolish to attempt to develop a cut and dried "formula" to identify who will become a leader at a certain place in a certain time in history. Historical circumstance provided an opportunity for Fidel Castro. We cannot know for certain what he would have become in other circumstances. We certainly do know that his power in Cuba has been uninterrupted for over 40 years, and that is no small accomplishment. Contrast that experience with that of Adolph Hitler, who also rose to power quickly due to historical circumstance, who clearly knew what to say to capture the loyalty of German people, and the vast resources of the German republic, and who quickly proceeded to wreck their immediate future as well as his own.

In most of the so-called civilized world, societies have developed and normally use rather formal procedures and practices that determine the activities and success rules necessary for a person to become a leader. In general, there is hierarchy, and great skill in working within and around a hierarchy to achieve personal goals is mandatory to progress. There are also the personal factors related to appearance, gender, size, voice, diction and cultural or racial origin. Finally, there is the consideration of specific aptitudes and attitudes that determine the likelihood of success. Note that children and grandchildren from wealthy families who have produced some highly placed leaders do not regularly become highly placed leaders themselves, for they lack one or more of the required characteristics or aptitudes, e.g., the Kennedy family. Money is not enough.

The fact that we have pyramid structures in government, religion and business that determine a relatively fixed number of leadership positions means that a large number of competitors will become a comparatively very small number of actual leaders. Thus, the ascendancy process culls out those who are simply comparatively less attractive or capable (smart enough to know when to appear cooperative). Either weakness can limit the achievement, but we are readily confused when we see attractiveness present in apparent leadership positions without the accompanying aptitudes, e.g., Dan Quayle. Recognize that some so-called leadership positions have no power. A king in earlier centuries likely had a queen due to marriage, but she determined nothing of note regarding policy. A USA president has a vice-president who has essentially no power at all. Thus, all we can say is that those who do achieve leadership positions, and maintain them, appear and behave in such manner as to meet the minimal needs of the hierarchy within which they exist or rise. Many positions are maintained by loyalty to those higher in the hierarchy rather than capable personal performance. This means the distribution of actual power within the hierarchy has little to do with the number of people who populate it or their apparent level. Actually, the most capable people work to modify or create the hierarchical expectations during their tenure, to their own advantage.

Having established a very general description of fundamental or basic leadership requirements re abilities and behaviors, it is now appropriate to look at the psychological aspects of leaders, from their early years to their death or retirement. Then we will address the less obvious question about the future of leadership. The areas I will explore next are the following:

1. What does a potential leader find so compellingly interesting about society at large and other individuals?

2. What early life experiences support the growing knowledge within the individual that they want to and will become a leader?

3. What understandings about history and human progress does the potential leader have that can lead that person to make a personal mark in history?

4. What expectations does the potential leader have for the time he/she will spend in the pursuit of power? What is the payback?

5. What are the accumulated effects of actual leadership experience on the attitudes of a leader, relative to that leader's span of control?

6. What specific psychological problems affect the decision processes of leaders?

7. What can we expect of leaders relative to our personal goals and needs?

8. Will we always need leaders as a small subset of our population?

To begin, individuals who are effective at controlling or manipulating the behaviors of people around them recognized early in life that the vast collection of people around them are raw material that can be shaped to provide for their goals and ambitions. Understand with finality that potential leaders do not believe in equality across all people, for they, more than any others, understand that their specific abilities set them far apart from the herd. It is irrational to manipulate if one actually believes in the inherent rights of others to be self-determined. Thus, leaders see people at large as their personal clay, from which they will mold the present and the future according to their own definitions of good or useful. The only limits imposed on the leader are those developed by earlier leaders in history, or by present leaders currently in the positions of maximum power. Thus, the ability to drive ever more people to do the potential leaders bidding is what the potential leader finds compelling about society at large.

As people are the raw material from which a leader makes the present and the future, they will be perceived in value in exactly the same way a carpenter looks at his inventory of wood. Some wood can be used for fine work. Some wood has limited usefulness and it will be ignored except for the most mundane applications. Some wood has value only in burning, for the space it occupies can be used only if it is eliminated. Leaders will use people in exactly the same manner.

Is it not true that some leaders have high ethical standards and helpful plans and programs to advance the cause of Humanity? How could this not be true? Do we not have examples of great leaders? Well, lets examine the premises and remember to differentiate powerful people as individuals, not as a group that engages in the "same" general type of activity. First, it is reasonable that an individual may decide that one or more aspects of the general term "high ethical standards" should characterize some of his/her actions. It does not mean overall that they are highly ethical or even-handed in the application of "their" ethics. However, they may have a penchant to fix some widely recognized problem that they have concluded is highly important. Thus, they will be perceived as highly ethical and dedicated. At one time, Newt Gingrich was viewed by some as that type of person. He used his announced religious bearing to proclaim his ethical stance and his disdain for public debt as the problem area, both masking his focused drive to total power.

Helpful plans and programs to better the economic fate of citizens are required to avoid revolution, i.e. major civil unrest, during poor economic periods. It is a temporary and practical behavior to maintain power. It also has a great price for future citizens to pay. Franklin Roosevelt gave us WPA, which did help citizens of, for his time, current and future generations. He also gave us Social Security, which disempowered the citizens to take personal responsibility for their future economic wellbeing, by law. Lyndon Johnson gave us Medicare and Medicaid. What price have we all paid in the fallout from ridiculously elevated healthcare costs and "managed" healthcare systems?

What is a great leader? Is it someone who provides for national wealth through conquering other nations militarily or economically? Is it someone who creates programs to take care of the lowest common denominator of the citizens, at the expense of all the other citizens? Is it someone who harnesses the wealth and educational resources of a nation to promote national reputation by putting a man on the moon? Put succinctly, there will be some good resulting from most any program of the types identified above, yet there will be a natural tendency to sweep the less attractive consequences under the rug. And there will be one hell of a time trying to eliminate that which has become law and has proven to be ineffective (for the presumed beneficiaries) and costly.

I do not think of any leaders as great throughout history, for my understanding of the word great applies to those people in non-leadership positions who have advanced the cause of Humanity by discovering technology to improve our health, our food supply and our physical environment. I also think of those educators who, to steal part of a quote, taught us to fish rather than giving us a fish. That is what the word great means to me. Great people empower individuals without amassing additional power.

Most of us do not become leaders, and most of us do not make early choices for later careers based on personal values, experiences or intellectual considerations. However, leaders exhibit the aptitudes and personality traits that will lead to developed leader psychology long before personal values are developed intellectually through education. It is not necessary for any parent to attempt to create a leader through one or more of their children. If the aptitudes and opportunity are present, the individual will proceed to develop leader skills without any external motivation. They are truly self-determined from early childhood, and they quickly learn that power is achieved through carefully chosen words and manipulative behaviors, not muscles. The most the parent can do is provide example material and give positive reinforcement when the child chooses to apply his/her aptitudes in ways that help other people and do not specifically discriminate against harmless individuals.

It is trite to say that success leads to success, but it is true in any endeavor that we repeat those things that yield our definition of success. We modify our behaviors to bypass or crush obstacles but we do not lose our fundamental commitment to ourselves if we have leader aptitudes. Confronting opposing power is done by studying the weaknesses or proclivities of the person(s) in power and working them to our advantage. Machiavelli has written plenty on this subject, so I have no reason to plagiarize him. We will proceed now to look at leaders who make a personal mark on human history.

If one sees all realization of progress, by one's personal definition, as the by-product of the coordination of the activities of other people, and one realizes that their success requires the willing subordination of the people led, then one must expect that the results of their campaigns will impact the future willingness of the people to be led, especially those who themselves have leader abilities. This means that a leader will want to appear to be a good leader for selfish reasons, and that the steps necessary to assure that condition will usually involve giving the followers something they find useful, so that they will admire and be loyal to the leader. To make a mark in history, that is to say a good mark, is a necessity for a true leader, for their self-impression depends on good reception of results. To be adulated is confirmation of what the leader has always believed about himself/herself. Leaders in general, however, do not do what is good for the masses. They do what appears to be good to expand their power base and domain of activities.

Leaders also use fear and punishment to get the required results. There is no such thing as a successful leader who is unwilling or reluctant to punish. You must understand that any individual who does not work towards the success of the leader, by the leaders own perception, will be punished if that is possible. The very process of competition for limited numbers of positions of power assures that leaders will learn how to destroy competitors early in their career, and failure to do so will terminate the progress of the would-be leader. How then can any person of lesser abilities than those competing for leadership positions expect an ascending or arrived leader to treat them with respect? That is simply illogical, and it is the planned activity of the leader to delude the common person and to feed that persons self-delusions regarding the good will of the leader on their behalf.

Thus, expanded power and respect are the payback for leaders. Since every leadership position has finite limits of power, at least up to this point in human history, it becomes clear that leaders will hit limits beyond which they cannot proceed. It is, of course, that very truth that underpins the entire discussion of the psychology of leadership. We now understand the aptitude set and the psychology that cause people to become leaders. We now understand that the exercise of their power is self-centered. We must look now at what happens when they are approaching their limits and when they finally hit those limits.

Let us first get past some misconceptions. All of us are capable of deluding ourselves, and that includes all people we have called leaders, past and present. One might argue that the clearest-headed leaders will not make that mistake, but that argument is valid only in a comparison sense, i.e., there are those who are less deluded than others on any given subject, but essentially all of us are victims of self-delusion. We have unrecognized areas of blindness. Secondly, it is the response we make when we come to realize our limits in life that determines whether we will perform to the general or common good, or whether we will gradually become either helpless or cruelly demented. Finally, in a humanitarian sense, is it not clear that any individual who proceeds from childhood to old age believing in their personal wants and worth to the exclusion of the wants and worth of others is, in fact, mentally ill? The inner need to have great personal power at the expense of other people does clearly define a form of mental illness. How dare we refer to some of these people as occupants of career positions in "public service?"

We do not respond well to the above truth. We will make all kinds of excuses having to do with the need for the more capable to organize the less capable to the benefit of all. Invalid arguments will be delivered to promote our guilt for not respecting those who have authorized (at our expense and with our labor) the creation of our interstate highways, our centers for disease control, our space program and our social security system. We will promote admiration for those willing to "take on the responsibilities" of leadership. Hogwash! Leaders do what they do because that is the only activity that has any meaning to them, and one for which they are superbly capable. They find no value in cleaning their own toilets or growing and cooking their own food. They are utterly dependent on the psychological and physical support of those willing to follow them. A would-be leader without followers is a non-entity by their own definition. There is no life activity of value to those individuals other than leadership because they never learned to value the simpler activities that most people use to define themselves as individuals. For example, some people like designing and building their home, or fixing a mechanical or electrical problem, or creating a fine recipe, or simply finding their deepest joys through loving their children and each other.

What can you expect of an individual whose innermost kernel of self-definition is their own ultimate worth vs. that of other humans, and who also has been frustrated in the achievement of their personal objectives? There is no pat answer. We do know of individuals who have become remarkably kind and helpful when their time in power has ended. Consider Jimmy Carter. History provides us, however, with plenty of examples of powerful individuals who dealt with their limitations in a most ungraceful way. Consider Nero, Hitler, Richard Nixon, John D. Rockefeller and J. Edgar Hoover. Moreover, note that I am not talking only about leaders of nations. I am specifically including all those types of individuals who achieve some significant level of power in a hierarchy.

History shows us one clear truth regarding what we can expect from leaders on behalf of our individual goals and objectives. That truth is: nothing. Any personal progress for the common person is an ancillary result, most often achieved singly or in like-minded groups, despite the existence of leaders, and not a fundamental objective of the leaders programs. This cannot help but make sense, for what value do you think you have as an individual opposite the leader's goals? The answer is that your value to the leader is a direct function of that leader's dependency on you as an individual. You are one of many millions and you are easily replaced, regardless of your occupation. Your opinions as an individual mean exactly nothing. Why would any leader waste the time to deal with you when that leader has other powerful people with whom to work and from whom to extract support?

Has anyone ever challenged you or accused you with the question: Do you have a problem with authority? Do you understand that the fundamental notion that "authority" is useful or respectable is simply foolish? It is the promoted delusion that individuals need to be controlled, managed and told what to do. You need not guess whose purposes that bunk serves, or whose presumably parental guidance is not directed towards your personal growth or progress.

What you can appreciate is the application of the golden rule for all personal interactions with other people. There is no "authority" other than your right to receive consideration from others as you in turn give consideration to their wants and needs. Respect is a very positive feeling that results when we discover that we can work very effectively with other individuals to mutual gain. There is no larger sphere of life. There is no "rule of men" and there is no "rule of law." One is simply an abuse of power by individual leaders and the other the same abuse of power by groups of leaders, who are one step removed, legally, from being held personally responsible for injustice to common citizens.

Thus, the exercise of power by leaders is used in our court and prison systems to punish those who do not support the rules as conceived by the leaders and defined by the legislatures, i.e. the laws. At a personal level, it is apparent that we do not want individuals taking from us those resources that they have not earned. We do not like thieves or murderers. It does not matter whether they are individuals who have not integrated well into society or groups of leaders in business, government or religion who attempt to intern us to meet their personal objectives.

Some relatively powerless individuals do commit crimes and we need protection from those people. We turn to leaders for that protection. What we get is effectively no protection, for crime rates are relatively constant no matter how many people we imprison. And we do imprison many people at very high cost. Think about the number two million. Think about annual per inmate cost of $30,000. What do you think our leaders could do with that sixty billion dollars that would be more effective at eliminating crime? Then think about why crime rates remain relatively constant. Recognize that crime prevention is not the domain of leadership. They deal only with "after the fact" punishment, through the courts and prison systems. Think about an enlightened leader who would promote education and jobs effectively, as opposed to lip service. Think also about the use of a major, enclosed land area for convicted criminals to live by their own labor, for food, shelter and clothing during their sentence, similar to what Great Britain did many years ago with Australia. What forces would drive leaders to decide that these actions would help them improve or enhance their power base? Likely none.

Will we always have leaders? That is the largest question of all, for we do understand that we have always had leaders. If my proposition about leader psychology being a form of mental illness is true, and if the recorded, countless atrocities committed by leaders and their immediate followers throughout history are true, then we have a very powerful reason to explore a different kind of future.

Destiny calls for effective checks and balances to assure that we do live by the golden rule. Destiny clearly demands the harnessing of genetic engineering and vastly improved education to cause all of us to have equivalent and vastly expanded aptitudes, broad and deep knowledge, and thus, equal opportunity. It is in the domain of the level playing field that we will find fairness and an end to the human conflict that has been our inheritance. Indeed, whatever people contribute the most in our future, we may call leaders, provided we differentiate the use of that word from how it has been used throughout history to refer to a diverse collection of mentally ill savants.

The converse of our actual historical experience is distributed power combined with distributed equal abilities. Leadership in the conventional, historical sense has no place in that world. Yes, we will evolve towards distributed power. No, we will not continue to be the victims of mentally ill savants.

Such a strong, negative position regarding leaders and "leadership" is clearly a polarized position. Yet, it is simply a review of major, actual results throughout history, and a negative light shown on the individuals who have participated and perpetrated. It is not fair, however, to leaders or to anyone successful within a hierarchy to stop the discussion at that point. What has been left unsaid in this article is of even more importance than what was said, for we need to understand the dynamic forces within leaders and across our societies that combine to cause our leaders to behave as they do.

Refer to the Destiny article, "What We Common People Don't Want To Understand," to take an in-depth look at the foundation for our difficulties, both personally and with regard to leaders.