Why Bad Leaders Are Inherited, And What We can Do About It

Sociologists and economists try to explain why the people choose such poor leaders. They argue it’s due to the appeal of the narcissist, or because we’re really not self-aware, or because leaders have always been men and men are just deficient at important leadership qualities. While these all contribute, I think evolution offers the most intriguing insights.

First, let me give these other views a fair hearing.

Groups do tend to choose people who rate high on the narcissist scale, in part because those people are the most aggressive self-promoters, and contend that they are the most qualified of all, a prediction that more competent leaders would be unable to refute. Narcissists to seek leadership positions because they are obsessed with having power. Yet in a variety of studies, narcissistic leaders do no better or worse than any one else as leaders. That helps explain our leadership problem.

Harvard Business Review article extends this argument by looking at the divide between men and women. Great leaders possess the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas. This takes humility, and women as a group score higher in these abilities than men (after combining studies on 23,000 people across 26 cultures). The article argues that the predominance of men in leadership roles is because they are more likely to overestimate their skills, and thus argue they are more qualified based on that overconfidence, and thus be chosen. “Whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men,” it concludes.

The value of this type of leadership is not a new insight; the Art of War (ca 512 BC) extols the virtues of the quiet, watchful, humble, reactive leader over the rash, reckless one. Incidentally, The Art of War is still required reading in all MBA programs.


But that article pulls its punches, landing the argument in safe “men are from mars” type conclusions. Delving into the origin of this divide is at the heart of fixing it. For if it is written in our genetic code (the nature argument), then men can’t be taught in MBA programs, and we should stop choosing male leaders if we want a peaceful world.

Or, if it is an entirely learned behavior (the nurture argument), then we should redouble our efforts to sweep away the cobwebs. Old thinking and behaviors maintain the status quo. Nations led by narcissists build empires out of democracies and incite the globally disinherited to form armies against them. In the hands of better leaders, able to imagine a future of shared prosperity, hope could blossom from the seeds of strife.

more walls and weapons

The evolutionary view

Our world, with its male-dominated leaders, is the product of hundreds of generations of selection. Each generation picks its leaders in large part on the biases of its culture, its zeitgeist. We forget that in the not-so-distant past leaders were 100% male. It was a crime for women to be taught to read, or for them to express political or religious views in public. Joan of Arc disguised herself as a man to save her homeland because her own leaders were so incompetent and myopic. Then they burned her at the stake as a witch after they were victorious. Compared to then, we’ve come along way, baby!

And like genetic evolution, each new generation evolves its attitudes by moving mere inches away from the views of its forefathers. They get a little exposure to precedent-breakers, people who don’t fit the stereotypes and stretch their “conventional wisdom” to be a little bit more grounded in reality. We – as a group – choose the “wrong” leaders in elections when we’re not aware of the world as it is. As Anais Nin said,


We don’t see things as they are,

We see things as we are.


So when the majority are raised with the “right” values, they choose the “right” leaders. Only we can’t even see how far our definition of “right” is going to progress in the next 100 years. Absolute “right” morality sustains a world in which all have enough, period. What today seems idealistic will one day seem quaint and backward. A society in which all have the formal right to vote was once unrealistic.

Democracy is a stabilizing force; it neither improves or decays our moral fiber. It doesn’t enable immoral, corrupt leaders to be elected from a largely moral, un-corrupted population. Instead, it gives us the average of what we are. If we want better leaders, we need to inherit better insights about the world from our parents and teachers.


There is one other, oft overlooked workaround to the problems of being stuck with leaders that are no better than our neighbors. But you probably don’t want to think about that. It skirts uncomfortable religious territory, such as how new cult ideas on the meaning of Jesus led thousands of cultists to transform an empire that had stood for hundreds of years – in just two generations. It’s hiding in undertones of Obama’s hope and change message of 2008. And according to the Reverend David Miller, it’s what the falling Twin Towers on 9-11 meant to the globally disinherited living outside of the empire – whose walls most of us inside it now take for granted. Many rejoiced, because America had supported their own tyrants for so long. Surely this was a wake up call, a sign that humbler, more aware leaders could emerge in the empire? Big ideas and transformative events, for better or worse, short-cut the group instinct against taking risks on new leadership.

Vast ideas

Certain ideas, whose dimensions are so vast they crowd out the self-interested center of our identity, leave room for us to stop momentarily and imagine that our world could be so much more than just the sum of a stock exchange and some global goods for barter. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of a year of the Jubilee – that every 75 years all work would stop, all debts forgiven, and all daily minutia swept aside so we can remember that this world is not what we act like it is. The buddhists believe that desire is the cause of all suffering, and that life’s meaning comes from recognizing and overcoming desire. And Capitalism cultivates desire in order to create prosperity. So many views, yet so little time do we spend thinking about it.

Instead we’re forced to choose between the billionaire narcissist, the cutthroat Machiavellian, and the aging activist. Who will lead us? They are a reflection of our society  as it stands today – no better, no worse. I think only one of them stops to imagine a world that never existed, and ask, “How can we make it happen?”

What we can do to fix it

To see transformation in action, look to sports, not politics.


Who would have thought that you’d have a Black Quarterback playing for the first and only hispanic head coach just 100 miles from the segregated Greensboro lunch counter where the civil rights movement began?

Most people, that’s who. It isn’t news.

The unbelievable part is that this is not news in the same year and in the same country where criminalizing refugees and baring entry to Muslims were proposed as laws. In a year that saw the nation divided on whether black lives matter, this sports story hasn’t been framed by race. The American Civil Rights movement predates the Superbowl Era by only six years, but politics lags far behind sports.

  1. Sports has that uncanny ability to side-step the inheritance problem of our pre-judgments (or prejudice, as it is usually called) in large part because exceptions to stereotypes become stories everyone follows.
  2. In sports, owners, coaches, and fans are willing to ignore the rules if it gives them an edge in winning. Unlike politics, or business, or race-relations, winning is not something you can lie to yourselves about. It either happens or it doesn’t.

1 Community

Cam Newton stands at the center of the Panther’s story. When a reporter asked him about his relationship with Mike Shula, his coach, he said:

“It’s more than just the guy being my coach. He’s a father figure of sorts. Just like [Head] Coach Ron Rivera, just like [GM] Dave Gettlemen, just like [Owner] Jerry Richardson – when you have people who think about you as more than just an asset, as a person, it’s amazing what that makes you want to do to return the favor.”


An ESPN broadcaster noted, “That attitude has spread throughout their entire team, and that’s why they have resilience – it’s born out of relationships. That answer is a ‘teaching tape’ for how to get to the next level.”

2 Necessary Risks

Building a culture that treats players as family is the brain child of Head Coach Ron Rivera, who himself was an unlikely hire. He was the Panther’s ninth candidate interviewed and had never coached a good NFL team. He had to take a 50% pay cut because they weren’t sure about him.

And with good reason – he started as the poster child for conservative late-game decisions. Years later, after an infuriating 24-23 loss, he morphed into “Riverboat Ron” – one of the most aggressive risk taking coaches in the NFL. The Panthers were 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer up to that point; since, Rivera’s Panthers are 16-3-1 in those same contests.

3 Be Yourself

When given a talented but polarizing narcissistic leader in Cam Newton, Riverboat Ron didn’t try to manage him. He said, “Be yourself.” And in the mold of leaders from the Art of War, he turned Cam’s narcissistic attitudes into an asset.

“When you dance in the end zone, don’t make it about you. Give the ball to a kid. Make it an expression of JOY,” he might’ve said. Because Cam started doing this and people were cheering for the narcissist.

By embracing diversity he created a leader out of Cam, who then inspired his team. Few people can adapt or change their styles like Rivera, but those who can change themselves can be great leaders for those around them.


And just as our leaders are a reflection of ourselves, this team’s acceptance by North Carolina’s fans shows there is hope, even though the state harbors tons of closet racists. ESPN’s Tim Keown nailed this phenomenon when he wrote of Newton, “He’s not a quarterback; he’s a Rorschach test.”

So are we going out of our way to give the ball to someone else, or are we playing it safe and inheriting whatever choices are given to us by our leaders?




2 thoughts on “Why Bad Leaders Are Inherited, And What We can Do About It

  1. Reblogged this on Niger Delta Politics and commented:
    This is an excellent post by a friend that touches upon the lack of women in leadership as a whole, whether it be in the U.S. or Nigeria. I would add that because men have historically held positions of political power, then enjoy the “incumbent advantage,” which is well studied in the U.S. Those (male) politicans currently in office enjoy a more expansive socio-professional network, a potential ability to time elections in their favor, and greater name recognition (regardless of performance). Additionally, incumbents also have easier access to campaign funds and state resources that can be used to bolster their own campaigns, if even indirectly. These dynamics would make for an uphill battle in changing the gender ratios of government seats.

    How would the incumbent advantage take form in African politics?

  2. Excellent points, Marc. I reposted to my blog and added a remark about incumbency advantages, which make it difficult for new female candidates to enter a predominantly male political landscape.

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