During election season — which nowadays seems to take place year-round — we argue and debate over which candidates we’ll follow into the electoral battle. And of course we’re always disappointed, even if we decide to vote for them, with the caliber of people who take the reins of power. “Why can’t we have really great people running things?” Well, we can’t. And there’s some good science to back this up.
—Leaders are arrogant: They’re rude, they break rules but expect others to obey them, and — here’s the kicker — other people thereby see them as leaders. Nobody stands up to them. Leadership somehow turns the rest of us into sheep. Then one day we’re surprised and hurt to learn that our beloved leader has been having an affair or stealing money or molesting children. But it’s the role of leader itself that gives these people the feeling they’re exempt from the rules the rest of us must obey.
—The ones who look the best usually aren’t: Open self-confidence, a take-charge attitude — these qualities make the candidates seem worthy of our support, when in fact they’re the attributes of narcissists. And narcissists, who have inflated views of themselves and relative contempt for other viewpoints, make especially bad leaders because they can’t entertain those views, much less choose among them. (And they seemed so competent!)
—Politicians can’t accept blame: This isn’t their fault; it’s the system’s. Though studies show that humility is appreciated in leaders, it’s usually punished in the public arena, where opponents will use admissions of fault in campaigns critical of the humble leader’s competence, and people affected by the mistake will be inclined to sue. Sure, presidents are indemnified against torts, but by the time they’ve attained high office, their naive impulses to admit error have long since been weeded out. At best, you’ll sometimes get a highly generalized expression of regret; at worst, the politician will express being “sorry that the other side is so intolerant,” or “I regret that my opponent is so upset about it.” It’s screwed up.
—We choose physically imposing people, rather than competent ones, for leaders: It’s genetic; we can’t help ourselves; we like presidents who are bigger and taller. Back in the day, when our village needed a strong leader to help fend off cave bears and marauders, this made sense. Today, a short person with a competent brain is probably more useful, but — like I said — we can’t help ourselves. The result is a lower quality of modern leadership, chosen by appearance rather than competence. We get TV leaders, not real ones.
—The system selects for panderers: In any world-class event, from sports to international business to the presidency, the winners rise to the top because they win. Anyone, no matter how dignified or smart or helpful, will lose unless he or she focuses all energies on the single goal of winning. It’s a kind of natural selection, whereby those who survive have done whatever needs to be done to defeat the others. As a result, politicians will say or do whatever it takes to get them elected. Honesty is out (because voters don’t care for bad news), and new ideas are out (because the electorate will regard them as kooky).
—Leaders demand obedience: We tell ourselves that we’re independent-minded. But just try to convince your political opponents that their leaders have any flaws at all, and you’ll see the problem they’ve been having with you. We want leaders we truly respect and admire, so we end up shoehorning our beliefs into theirs, twisting and turning to fit in with them rather than question them. Eventually the differences become too great, and some of us break away suddenly, running to another leader we hope we can truly believe in. But that’s rare, with result that leaders come to expect, and receive, something close to total loyalty among their troops. Just because you’re not enlisted doesn’t mean you’re not in somebody’s army. And there’s no talking back!
—Leaders juvenilize us: The very act of searching for a leader we can follow is akin to saying, “Mommy! Daddy! Take care of me!” It’s one thing to search for role models to emulate; it’s another to follow them around worshipfully. The more childlike and dependent we are — and the less independent and skeptical — the more useful we are to the leader. In a democracy, the citizens are nominally in charge, but candidates aren’t exactly sitting for an employment interview. Instead, they stand on platforms, speak into microphones before thousands of cheering supporters, and exhort them to work for the leader!
—Leaders have contempt for us: When a politician talks about helping “the little guy”, he means you, not him. When she says, “I’ll work for YOU!” does that mean she wants to hear from you? No. (Just try getting through to the candidate on your own.) Our leaders give lip service to the common man but they get driven around in limos, make enormous sums of money, attend lavish events, put their children in private schools, and live in beautiful and costly surroundings tended to by servants. Are you getting the picture? This isn’t about serving you; it’s about serving them. Lately it’s routine to hear in the media some leaked account of politicians speaking contemptuously of others, including their own constituents. This raises an interesting question: why would people strive so hard to achieve authority over people they don’t respect? Do they want to teach us a lesson? Dominate us as payback for some childhood insult? Lord it over others to prove they’re above it all? It’s something to think about, next time you’re tempted to idolize a leader. They certainly don’t idolize you.
—Politicians can’t solve problems: Politics is, by its nature, competitive: voters vie against each other to elect those who’ll represent their concerns. Politicians must, therefore, appeal to the self-interest of their constituents if they’re to get elected. They can’t take a stand for compromise; they can’t ask for tolerance. Candidates who try end up as also-rans. So problems never really get solved, no matter how brilliant or enthusiastic our elected officials appear. It’s a waste of energy to worry about which candidates will finally bring justice to the world, when they can only represent one side of the problem at a time. They’ll never bring goodness to the world. They might bring goodies to their voters, but that’s as far as it goes.
. . . Why do we bother, then? Is this search for leaders an exercise in delusion? If we expect them to exceed our own limitations, then yes, it is. After all, we elect them, not the other way around; they can only rise as high as their own voters. The irony is that, in searching for leaders, inevitably we choose those who are no better than ourselves. We hope for better, but we saddle them with superhuman demands they can’t meet. Somehow the process always falls flat.
If, on the other hand, we were imbued with the very qualities we seek in our leaders, we would no longer ask that they inspire us. If we stopped depending on them to be the “good ones” and, instead, embodied those qualities ourselves, then the need for such leadership would vanish. We’d consider elected officials to be our employees, to serve at our pleasure. Rather than worshipping them, we’d scrutinize them. Rather than choosing tall people, we’d elect smart ones. Rather than electing smooth talkers who merely sound compassionate, we’d choose people with judgment and heart. In short, they’s serve us, not the other way around.
But don’t hold your breath. It’s a lot easier to renounce adulthood and search for a parental figure to follow. And that’s just how leaders like it.