US Election: Will the real leader please stand up?

Written by
Susanne Braun

08 Nov 2016

08 Nov 2016 • by Susanne Braun

Tuesday 8th November 2016 marks a historical date for the United States, when votes of the presidential elections are cast.

The polls are tightening, with some seeing the candidates only as little as two or three percentage points apart from each other. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have repeatedly sparked uproar and disdain in public.

Trump alienated many with comments on Mexican immigrants and more recently with several accusations of sexual assault. Clinton’s reputation suffered over private mail server scandals and donations to the Clinton Foundation. To many it seems as in this particular election voting has become a decision between the lesser of two evils; if not the lesser of two egos.

But why are we struggling so much to elect capable leaders? The good news is that we can learn to overcome our flawed views of leadership, not only in politics, but also in business. 

Here are three key points for your leadership handbook:

1. Leadership lies in the eye of the beholder

To begin with, the US elections can be seen as prime examples of the subjectivity of leadership. Rather than looking for someone’s objective fit to a position, we tend to go by our general sense of whether we like or dislike a person. This is where we need to exercise caution as flaws and psychological biases guide these perceptions.

What you need to know is: everyone holds implicit theories or prototypes of what good leadership is in their view, and superficially relevant traits such as dominance, charisma, and agency are typically on top of that list. But is a dominant person also a good leader? Will they take their followers’ needs and interests into consideration? Not necessarily so.

2. Taking a bite of the leadership cake

So why are we so easy to fool when it comes to leadership? Research shows that people are prone to recognise narcissists as leaders at first. This is because narcissists initially appear charming and powerful, presenting themselves as great communicators and confident pioneers for a better future ahead. Trump has certainly exercised that role in public. But does that mean he will build relationships and strategic avenues toward a sustainable future for all?

According to a recent study conducted at Bangor University the exact opposite is likely the case. While participants saw narcissistic individuals as good leaders initially, their impressions of narcissists’ leadership qualities vanished over a 12-week period.

To understand this phenomenon, think of chocolate cake: while you indulge in the first bite, will you possibly regret this treat in the long run? We need to consider the relationship with a leader in the long run. Understand what they have done in the past and what their proposals are for the future. 

3. Women who lead? Now thats a challenge

The question remains why people shy away from voting for Clinton. While she appears to be a rather conventional candidate for the role, reactions to her candidacy have been more than unconventional. Are we still biased against female leaders? Indeed, especially in the political realm, gender plays a role for our views of good leadership. Men rather than women occupy positions of power. Women often walk a very fine line between being seen as nice and kind (but not leader-like) or tough and assertive (but not likeable).

This bias can result in dislike when women cross the line, appearing in places where they are not supposed to be. When women step up for leadership, we need to make the standards they are judged against explicit.

The US election outcome will affect many. Even more so since there are lessons to be learned for our views of good leadership: rather than waiting for the real leader to stand up, we can make better judgments. If your business questions the biased views of leadership to see whether they hold up against objective information, you are taking a step in the right direction.