Bad leaders attract blind followers

Speak your mind by Dr Guru Kistnasamy

We have good and bad leaders in every sphere of society including community, business, charitable organisations, religion, politics, etc. Bad leaders have been known to do irreparable harm to the organisation that they purportedly serve, yet they have faithful followers.  In politics, we had toxic leaders such as Hitler, Idi Amin, Gadaffi, Kim Jong Un, and so forth. Why do people blindly follow bad leaders?

These are some of the characteristics of bad leaders (Adapted from M. Gervais-Shift management-2015).

  • Believing that he is the greatest, and others do not mater.
  • Engaging in corruption directly or indirectly.
  • Insular behaviour. No concern about hurting others.
  • Incompetence.
  • Threatening anyone who stands in his way of accumulating wealth.
  • Self-centred idea of greatness or invulnerability.
  • Use of state organs or structures such as the police or army to interfere with inter-personal relationships.
  • Accumulation of symbols of personal power- luxury cars, palaces, overseas investments, etc.
  • Tendency to over control by disciplinary measures, legal action, and   imprisonment in order to instill a culture of fear of reprisal and isolation.
  • The appointments of ‘puppets’ in key and important portfolios so that they can be controlled and manipulated.

There may be psychological theories why people blindly follow leaders: The theory of dominance hierarchies postulates that people are prone to follow the leader with the most power to control. There is a desire for protection and the need to retain the privileges that they currently enjoy.

Even smart people need validation and approval from authority figures. The smarter they are the more likely they are to fall for bad leadership. Smart people think that their cognitive skills will prevent them from being manipulated emotionally. This false belief makes them even more vulnerable to be influenced by bad leaders.

The social validation theory indicates that it is harder to question the leadership without being excluded from that group. The desire to belong is stronger than the desire to do what is right. The lonely voice that speaks out is silenced, while the others in the group look on passively hoping that they will not be singled out as the next victim.

The final reason may be that the people support the bad leader because they want to divert attention from their own poor performance.

According to M Maccoby, there is a tendency for transferring an individual’s desire for strong father figures, nurturing mother figures and protective siblings. Those missing such strong family figures may be deluded by a toxic leader’s glamour of protective strength. These blind followers may come from dysfunctional families. Hence there is an attraction to a powerful but bad leader.



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