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5 reasons why we don’t have more ethical leaders

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic unpacks the psychology of why we don’t also choose leaders with the highest integrity.

5 reasons why we don’t have more ethical leaders
[Photo: channarongsds/iStock]

There is a long list of traits people like to associate with great leadership, but few are as important as integrity. When leaders lack integrity, every strength they have becomes a toxic and destructive weapon to reduce rather than enhance the well-being and performance of their groups. Leaders are generally more effective when they are smart and ambition is a critical catalyst of success, but the absence of ethics will fuel leaders’ selfish agenda at the expense of their teams, followers, and subordinates. When leaders are unethical, you better hope that they are as lazy as possible.

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Both in business and academia, people have highlighted the importance of integrity for decades, perhaps because ethical leaders are the exception rather than the norm. The current pandemic is no exception, with the widespread realization that ethical, competent, and humble leaders stood out for their ability to manage the crisis. In a logical world, we wouldn’t have needed a pandemic to realize that organizations and societies are generally better off when they are led by smart, honest, and kind people, but there you have it.

An obvious question that emerges, is why don’t we end up with ethical leaders more often?

Is it that integrity is hard to spot, and ethical behaviors are hard to predict? Not really. In fact, academic research has shown for decades that psychometric assessments measuring traits like conscientiousness, altruism, and agreeableness are accurate predictors of leaders’ propensity to engage in moral and immoral behavior. The higher you score on those traits, the more integrity you will show.

Of course, there’s always a limit to people’s honesty, and even ethical individuals may at times act in questionable ways, particularly if they are faced with two suboptimal choices (e.g., telling the truth to my employees and hurting their feelings, or lying but making them happy, etc.).

Moral and immoral acts, like any form of behavior, are always a function of an interaction between the person and the situation, such that your integrity score will predict the strength of the situational incentive needed to corrupt your choices. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” While power does generally corrupt, it is not equally corrupting for everyone.

So, why don’t we end up with ethical and moral leaders more frequently, whether in business or politics? There are five main reasons:

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We are not serious about integrity

While we love to say that integrity is a cornerstone of leadership potential, our order of preference, when we vote or appoint leaders, prioritizes other traits. In fact, many of the qualities that seduce us in leaders are diametrically opposed to integrity.

We are seduced by narcissistic and psychopathic leaders

As I show in my latest book or related TED talk, we have a tendency to gravitate towards charismatic and magnetic personalities, usually big egos, who captivate us with their megalomaniac visions and delusional talents. Although it is perfectly possible for charismatic leaders to be ethical, when we select leaders on charisma rather than humility, and confidence rather than competence, we should not be surprised that we end up with a lot of unethical and self-centered people in charge, who are quite happy to take advantage of others to advance their own selfish interests.

Too many people become leaders to acquire status and power

Scientists have always regarded leadership as a psychological process of influence whereby an individual enables a group of people to elevate their performance and accomplishments by directing them to function as a cohesive unit. And in politics, leadership brings societies together to propel them to progress and prosperity.

But there is a problem. Leadership is marketed as the ultimate career destination, and it confers power and status, so there are a great number of individuals who are only interested in becoming leaders to acquire fame and status. They have no desire to make others better and are entirely focused on their own personal success. The more we pretend that leadership is an unselfish and other-oriented role, the more these individuals will fake integrity in order to climb up the ladder.

We trust our instincts, but our intuition is flawed

Most people see themselves as great judges of character, but it is not easy to spot integrity when you see it. Consider that we are under the influence of a wide range of biases. These cloud our judgment and nurture denial to protect our own self-concept even after we blatantly get it wrong. When someone is more attractive, eloquent, smart, or a member of our in-group (e.g., political affiliation, college, country, race, and social class), we are more likely to believe they are “honest.” It is a socially acceptable and subliminal way of claiming that we are honest, too. After all, they are like us.

This also leads to out-group prejudice and mob mentality. When someone who disagrees with us, and is perhaps right while we are wrong, they appear to us to be untrustworthy or unethical. Integrity is not easy to perceive like the color red or the Niagara Falls. It requires careful and systematic attention to data, including a person’s track record, their psychological profile, and robust scrutiny of the gap between what they say and what they do. Oh, and when we are seduced by someone, we are obviously not very impartial or objective to judge these things.

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We are often driven by our own interests

Contrary to popular belief, it is not easy to come up with a universal moral framework where everyone just follows their own interest. Civilized societies are founded on the opposite premise: that we must learn to sacrifice individual self-interest in order to “take one for the team” and make the system stronger than the individual. This, however, is easier said than done.

When leaders emerge to co-opt our own selfish interests, we are quite happy to leave aside higher moral principles, and optimize for our own personal success. This is how a single rotten apple can contaminate the whole barrel, and why good apples go bad when you put them in a rotten barrel. The effects of leadership always cascade down, and corrupt leaders are very good at unleashing their teams’ parasitic mindset. In politics, it is often said that most countries have the government they deserve. At least in democracies, we can see why corrupt leaders would be more likely to emerge in societies with corrupt rather than altruistic values.

Now the good news: we don’t need for a sea change in leadership choices to occur for things to get better. Since leaders’ integrity is essential to ensure the well-being and performance of teams, organizations, and nations, we can expect any system or collective led by ethical leaders to outperform their rivals. Ethical leaders will drive prosperity while unethical leaders will accelerate decay.

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