Why Are We Attracted to Leaders? – by Micha Popper

Photo: LuMaxArt (www.lumaxart.com), Creative Commons 2.0

One of the scenes in a Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa shows a troop of war-weary soldiers going towards the next battlefield. The camera lingers over the perspiring faces, tired eyes and dragging movements. They are totally exhausted. Suddenly, in the distance they notice their leader standing on a hilltop and waving his hand in greeting. The dramatic effect of the leader’s presence is amazing. The soldiers’ eyes sparkle, their backs straighten, the weariness disappears. With renewed energy they march into battle. Afterwards the camera turns away from the soldiers and slowly zooms in to a close-up of the leader. When the camera hovers over his face, the viewers discover that the leader is dead. Somebody is supporting him and waving his hand in the air.

Scenes of this kind which demonstrate so distinctly the leader’s central place in the followers’ perception often appear in various forms in the folklore of diverse cultures. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the very thought of the leader’s presence instills in the followers a sense of security, order or meaning.

But why do people follow leaders?  What makes them ready to envisage leaders and follow their invented image (as in the scene described above)? What are the sources of such yearning for a leader?

In his new book ‘Fact and Fantasy About Leadership’, Micha Popper presents three psychological explanations for the craving for leaders and the willingness to follow them:

 1) The psychoanalytic approach

Unlike other animals, such as baboons or chimpanzees, who stand on their feet and start walking a few minutes after birth, and within weeks are able to take care of themselves and are aware of menaces and the ways of coping with them, the human baby is totally dependent on the care of adults for a number of years. This fact, according to prominent theoreticians, has crucial psychological significance for people’s development for their entire lives. Longing for a leader is one of the psychological expressions of this primary need. According to psychoanalytic thinking, it is the inherent longing for an authority figure who was (in most cases) so protective in our early lives. This inherent longing intensifies and is expressed openly, even forcefully, in times of crisis. Thus, according to this psychoanalytic thinking, the leader is an inherent psychological response to people’s anxieties and wishes. He is a projected invention of a parental image that pacifies the followers.

2) The cognitive psychological explanation

According to cognitive psychologists, people are constantly busy sense making of reality, as they perceive it. Research in cognitive psychology examines how people do this and whether there are laws and rules (heuristics) in the processing of the information they receive. The leaders, their image, their speech and their behavior are scraps of information in the totality of data that the individual absorbs and processes. Research has shown that information about a leader is interpreted in a special way.  The upheaval, for instance, that occurred in the Soviet Union during the 1980s was attributed more to Gorbachev’s leadership than to the complex processes that had been taking place gradually over many years. Individuals ascribe greater weight to people than to circumstances.  Such biases are clearly reflected in the greater popularity of leaders’ biographies compared with books that analyze complex historical processes or in the fact of the public focusing mostly on the leaders’ personality during election campaigns while paying little or no attention to the party platforms and manifestos. Such biases are explained by heuristics, which have been found to be consistent in general cognitive psychological research. For example, researchers have found two major heuristics that people use in the processing of information to which they are exposed: the availability and representativeness heuristics. That is, the tendency of the individual to assess the probability of an event by the ease with which occurrences come to mind. It appears, then, that leadership is the most evident and accessible category of explanation in evaluating and judging informatively complex situations.

3) The social psychological explanation 

From the social psychological point of view, people’s willingness to follow leaders is anchored in the term identity. Two explanations are suggested: (a) people have a hierarchy of identities which influence their attitudes, decisions, and behaviors; (b) events can affect the hierarchy of the individual’s identities, namely the salience of the various identities. The argument is that leaders can have such an effect on the salience of the individual’s identities if they are perceived as representatives of a narrative, of a suitable story that touches on people’s emotions. This explanation is based on the concept of the self (its crystallization and development), which is a major discussion in social psychology. According to this explanation, attraction to certain leaders is simply constructing or accepting a story that followers create for themselves as part of the crystallization of their identity.

Unlike the two previous explanations (psychoanalytic and cognitive psychological) which are claims with universal validity, the question of following leaders as a symbol, as a story, is by definition context-bound and culture-bound. As stated by some culture researchers: “leaders are symbols of cultures”. Understanding their influence means in fact, understanding the important symbols in a given culture.

In conclusion, the attraction to leaders, obedience to them, the construction of the leaders’ image and attribution to them of characteristics, abilities, decisions and behaviors are to a large extent subjective creations of the followers and are not necessarily derived from the actual character of the leader. The reasons at the base of this process, its psychological rules and meanings, are rooted in the three explanations presented above.

Professor Micha Popper  (BA from the Hebrew Univ in Jerusalem, MA and Ph.D from Tel-Aviv Univ, Israel) is the head of the Organizational Psychology Program at the University of Haifa Israel. He was the founder and director of the Center for Outstanding Leadership in Zikhron Yaakov Israel, a scholar of the US Army Research Institute (ARI) and has been a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada. His research and consulting concern leadership as cultural phenomena, leadership development, dynamics of leader- follower relationships and learning processes in organizations.

He is the author of seven books on leadership and numerous articles in leading academic and applied journals.  His new book ‘Fact and Fantasy About Leadership explores the three explanations for leadership discussed above in more detail, making use of numerous examples from political, military, business, public and social organizational spheres.

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