Psychology: the making of a leader

by gabeatkinson / 24 November, 2012
Having the motivation and ability to lead boils down to a handful of factors.


I wonder if, as he sat eating his Weet-Bix the morning after re-election, Barack Obama found himself weighing whether it’s all been worth it? For a start, he probably eats breakfast about 4am while preparing for a 16-hour day of soul-grindingly unproductive negotiations with lobbyists, interest groups and, of course, Republicans. At times during the election campaign he just looked knackered. Why would anyone do it?

This is a question about motivation – how and how much one works towards desired goals or to avoid undesirable ones. In the 1930s, Henry Murray suggested most people’s motivations could be boiled down to 20 general categories of goals. Now, it’s more or less accepted that these 20 categories really represent three overarching families: the motives of seeking affiliation, power and achievement. Power and achievement are self-explanatory, and affiliation means the desire to be liked; to fit in with others. If you Google “motivation”, you’ll find numerous examples of questionnaires purporting to measure the idea. But in my experience politicians don’t usually fill in questionnaires.

You can anticipate, because you’ll have seen this on TV, what aspiring politicians will say when asked why they want to enter politics. “I want to make a difference” is the usual response. Besides, who’d be silly enough to say “Muahahaha! Absolute power”? So, when people study political motivations, they do it at a distance, through parliamentary and campaign speeches, interviews, etc. What they say over time tells us that politicians tend to be motivated, some more than others, by all three of these broad goals.

These motives translate into differences in political behaviour. Power-motivated leaders tend towards assertive actions that mean they’re seen by followers as inspirational figures but by opponents as warmongering, while affiliation translates into a more co-operative orientation.

And what of achievement? Does “wanting to make a difference” translate into political success? No, as it happens, and the reasons are obvious: it’s difficult to make a difference if it requires bipartisan support. In fact, high-achievement but low-power leaders are in the worst position: they want to make a difference but lack the tools to make it happen.

What makes a good leader? Four possible answers are: the “great person” theory that some people are just born leaders (good teeth, steely handshake); specific personality characteristics associated with successful leadership; the situations that potential leaders find themselves in and that determine who emerges at the top of the pile; and the interaction between all three of these ideas. The best answer is the last of them.

Many textbooks talk about the seminal 1938 study “Leadership and group life” attributed to Kurt Lewin, Ron Lippitt and Robert White. Groups of boys in a summer camp-type situation were led in a series of art and craft activities by adults instructed to adopt an autocratic (“do as you’re told”), democratic (encouraging distributed decision-making), or laissez-faire (“whatever”) leadership style.

History records that democracy proved successful for cohesion, standards adopted and satisfaction with outcomes and process; laissez-faire non-leadership led to apathy and poor outcomes; and autocracy was productive as long as the leader was there to supervise. Purportedly, democracy produced participative systems of deciding who occupied different roles and endorsement of equal opportunity, while autocracy produced aggressive power-grabs and disgruntled lower-downs.

It’s probably a good idea to remember the context in which this research occurred. Polish-born and German-educated Lewin had moved to the United States in 1933 and it doesn’t take a historian to point out the ideological storm clouds about to gather. It has been suggested that a triumph for democracy was the most politically appropriate interpretation of the outcome. That’s probably an appropriate reminder that, for spectators of the US elections, Obama’s success or failure will probably reside in the eye of the beholder.
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