Prior to COVID-19 the world was already obsessed with leaderism, cleverly defined by Gianpiero Petriglieri as “an intoxication with leadership that harms us more than the ills we invoke leaders to cure.” This person-centric cult of leadership was selling Hollywood films by the bucket and perpetuating our archaic fantasies of charismatic and narcissistic strongmen as not just ideal leaders, but the solution to all our problems.
Alas, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with heads of state elevated to the equivalent of our favorite sports teams with the health crisis their competition. The cathartic benefit people experience, in this most stressful of times, is to feel right. It’s a sense that “my leader is better than yours.” Even if that view is delusional, it makes people happy.
Now onto the shocking news. Apparently, people are generally better off when their leaders are smart, kind, and honest.
In a logical world, we would have not needed a pandemic to realize this, but in our world we did. Sometimes, lessons are learned the hard way. Sometimes, you can convince people with the most unexpected arguments. And yet humans have an incredible capacity to resist logic and argumentation.
The paradoxical nature of our intelligence means we are too smart to believe something we don’t want to believe. For instance, it is unlikely that people will change their opinion of presidents, heads of states, or governors, based on how those leaders’ regions rank on pandemic-related stats. If you want to believe someone is doing a great job, you can blame the bad stats on density, resources, healthcare system, ICU capacity, weather, or a bigger power force. If you want to disbelieve in the great job someone is doing, you can adopt “situational” attributions of success, including luck, weather, ICU capacity, etc., you get the picture.
This occurs even when the foundational work is done by the incumbent’s predecessor. For example, while Tim Cook has multiplied Apple’s market cap by over 7X (the company was worth $300 billions when Steve Jobs died in 2011, and it is worth over $2 trillion now, just nine years later), leaderism fanatics may claim that it is (still) all the genius work of Steve Jobs, who appointed Tim Cook in the first place.
There’s no question that the performance of groups, organizations, and nations, does in part depend on their leaders. Managers account for 70% of team-level engagement, and 48% of the variability in leadership is predicted by personality alone. When groups are led by more competent individuals they will increase their chances of outperforming rival teams.
But this also turns the debate upside down. Perhaps we are indeed focusing too much on the leader or the person who is in charge, at the expense of the group or team. To think of an entirely impossible and hypothetical example, switching Angela Merkel with Donald Trump, or Jair Bolsonaro with Jacinta Ardern, may not automatically improve the COVID-19 stats of the U.S. or Brazil. A bigger impact may come from switching populations of the U.S. and Brazil with those of Germany and New Zealand and with it their culture, habits, behaviors, healthcare infrastructure, density, inequality, etc.
Many of the reasons why Germany and New Zealand may have outperformed similar countries with their management of the pandemic are completely unrelated to Merkel and Ardern. Yet it is still the case that smart, rational, honest, and altruistic leaders are preferable to the alternative.
A better question, then, would be whether we are able to learn something new from this unparalleled situation. Are we actually able to revise our views and opinions with the evidence, or is our desire to feel right stronger than our desire to understand the world?
It is always interesting to see ourselves in the mirror when we try to interpret novel or complex situations. A fish doesn’t know what water is, but can we, as intelligent humans who would be expected to outperform any fish on an intelligence test, understand and overcome our own biases? Or at the very least, can we use this crisis to understand why those who don’t agree with us think the way they do?
The pessimistic answer to these questions suggests that the shocking and most tragic revelation of this pandemic is the fact that we are not as rational as we may think. We are, it seems, argument-heavy and data-light.