Why Do People Follow Bad Leaders?

Here are the reasons that tyrants, dictators, and incompetents continue to lead.

There are currently 50 countries in the world that are headed by dictators—more than one-quarter of all nations. Depending on how you define “bad leaders” another quarter, or more, of world nations are led by unethical, unstable, or incompetent individuals. Yet, we rarely see occasions where the people rise up and oust one of these bad leaders. So, this begs the question: Why do people willingly (or unwillingly) follow bad leaders?

Here are several reasons, and the underlying psychological factors.

1. A Preference for Strongman Leaders.

Most of us want our leaders to be strong and confident, but too many of us confuse arrogance and narcissism for strength. That is wrong. Research clearly shows that the very worst leaders—those who become tyrants—are very narcissistic and arrogant.

Why do these leaders typically fail? Their narcissism convinces them that they are always right; that means that they ignore others’ counsel and advice and don’t learn from their mistakes. Great leaders possess humility. They seek others’ input because they are aware of their limitations. Moreover, they continually strive to improve and become better leaders.

2. We Are Victims of Our Own Mental Shortcuts.

Heuristics are what psychologists call mental shortcuts that we use so that we don’t have to think and analyze so much (we have a tendency toward “cognitive laziness”). One reason that bad leaders are allowed to stay in power or get re-elected is that we use a number of mental shortcuts and fool ourselves into believing the bad leader is “really ok.” Here are some:

  • We Unquestioningly Accept the Leader’s View. For a number of reasons, many followers don’t question their leader’s actions adequately. When a leader is caught in seemingly bad behavior, followers all too quickly believe the leader’s argument that “nothing was wrong.”  We tend to put leaders on a pedestal—what leadership scholar, Jim Meindl, referred to as our “Romance of Leadership” so we don’t investigate fully and instead accept the leader’s explanation.
  • We Conform to Our In-Group’s Perspective. We trust those who are similar to us—or those who have similar belief systems. If those who share our beliefs and political ideology support a leader, we conform and provide support. In U.S. elections, 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans simply endorse members of their own party, right down the line.
  • We Believe that the Alternative is Worse Than Our Leader (“The Devil We Know…”). The in-group, out-group bias is a very powerful heuristic. It is very easy to trigger the belief that we’re the “good guys” and outsiders are the “bad guys.” Thus, any leader who is not “one of us” is bad, and would be worse than the poor leader we have now.
  • We Rationalize. This is a very human response to rationalize away the “sins” of our poor leaders. When the leader is caught in a violation—a sexual affair, some underhanded dealings, profiteering—we rationalize by saying “It’s ok. S/he is the leader” and we make an exception.  If we continue to rationalize the leader’s offenses, it becomes a slippery slope, with the bad leader engaging in worse and worse behavior and never being held accountable.

3. We Equate Effectiveness with Being a Good Leader. article continues after advertisement

We place great value on results, but often neglect to consider how those results were obtained (i.e., “the ends justify the means”). Bad leaders can achieve results (or have a reputation for achieving results), but do it through bad behavior—taking advantage of others, taking credit for others’ work, other forms of exploitation, etc.

4. We Bask in the Leader’s Power by Association.

We like to be on the winning side, and we’re willing to support bad leaders if we get what we want from them. In her book on toxic leadership, Dr. Jean Lipman-Blumen suggests that followers enable and assist bad leaders because it gives them a sense of power. Bad followers/”henchmen” are drawn to bad leaders because they can share power.

So, our own human tendencies help bad leaders stay in power and thrive. (“But Professor, don’t leave us hanging? What does a good leader look like?”)

Good leaders:

1. Unify and Don’t Divide.  

Good leaders never create divisions in their constituents, creating a “we vs. they” effect. 

2. Achieve Results, But Limit Collateral Damage. 

A good leader is effective, but never at the cost of hurting the well-being of followers, or destroying the environment, or turning friends into foes.article continues after advertisement

3. Share the Leadership With Followers. 

They work with followers, consulting with them, caring for them, and developing their shared leadership capacity.

4. Leave the Team, Organization, or Nation Better Off Than They Found It.

One thought on “Why Do People Follow Bad Leaders?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *