Why We Expect Arrogance in Leaders

What we expect and what we want from our leaders are two different things. We can accept a little bit of what we expect but don't want if we are able to get something that we really do want. But as you'll see, the leaders who create the maximum positive and sustainable impacts are those who surprise others by "disappointing" their negative expectations.

The Dark Side of a Positive Word

The word "leadership" is generally used to convey positive meaning. However, recent research[1] indicates that we view the expression of both contempt and compassion, two downward expressions of "socio-comparative" emotion,[2] as indicators of leadership. Surprised? 

Yes, it's an admittedly troubling finding. Few among us would consciously endorse the negative emotion of contempt as a desirable quality in leaders. We can easily appreciate compassion. We see frequent mention of it and similar positive emotions in models of transformational leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership, and the like.

But given that this is a recent, well-designed, and carefully conducted empirical study, I suggest that we resist the temptation to dismiss it and look for the deeper meaning in its results.

Implicit Theory of Leadership

In particular, let's recall that leadership is a social-organizational phenomenon, which conjures a complex mix of characteristics that inform our "implicit theory of leadership." In a task-oriented context, these characteristics will include practical intelligence, power, and the capacity to assert influence and achieve hard business results.

An implicit theory of leadership is a mental model. We all carry within us this kind of model. It specifies our understanding of what it means to be a leader. It is the lens through which we recognize leadership in others.

This mental model of leadership for most of us - male and female - is based upon a predominantly masculine prototype and implies a hierarchy within which leaders convey downward socio-comparative emotions, which contain information about the leader's relative value and superiority. I know it doesn’t sound very democratic, but it is a social reality - at least for now.[3]

Just as in our culture we hold generally shared notions of family structure that specify leadership roles and include attributions of power, pecking order, and authority, so also we hold shared mental models of how leadership power, authority, and decision-making are controlled in an organization. Although the content of these models may vary by individual and by organization, in its basic form leaders and those they lead collude in a sense by acting on the basic assumptions of the model.

The simplest take-away from this is:  People who are leaders (positional or emergent leaders) are assumed to be superior in some respect, therefore, we are not surprised if they express superiority in their attitude or demeanor (e.g., contempt) - in fact, we expect it.

The Mediating Role of Perceived Intelligence

But let us not oversimplify. This research associating perceptions of contempt with leadership do not imply an endorsement of bullying or brute force.

Let's recall that the superiority we expect concerns practical intelligence, adept use of power, and the ability to influence outcomes in a task-oriented context. Therefore, the researchers hypothesized that the recognition of leadership emergence in work groups via the downward expressions of contempt may be associated with the perceived intelligence of the leader. And they were right. It turns out that the downwardly expressed emotions carry other information.

Specifically, researchers tested whether recognition of persons as emergent leaders by virtue of their downward expressions of contempt and compassion was mediated by the perceived intelligence of these persons. The results indicated that expressions of contempt and compassion functioned as signs of leadership when accompanied by perceptions of leader intelligence. In that respect, perceptions of contempt and compassion can serve as proxies for perceived intelligence.

What this suggests is that we attribute leadership to downward expressions of contempt when we believe the person expressing it has "reason" for feeling superior in virtue of his or her intellect, business savvy, or practical impact. It also suggests that "empty suits" will be found out and their expression of contempt may be seen as mere vanity rather than as an "earned" marker of leadership.

In any case, a critical fact about this research is that it makes no connections between expressions of contempt and effects on performance. However, we do know that the other downward emotion, compassion, does have positive associations with performance.

Alas, Humility and Positive Emotions Matter Even More

Recent research[4] studied the effects of CEOs' humility on their leadership teams and on middle management. Humility was positively associated with empowerment and with greater integration of their top management teams (TMT). And TMT integration and empowerment translated into positive measures of engagement and performance at the middle management level. Humility expresses the leader's humanity and his or her presumption that others have something to offer and deserve to be heard.

We have seen that in our implicit theories of leadership, we attribute to CEOs and other leaders an elevated status, and we expect to find superior practical capabilities in them. When they are seen to possess those capabilities and to express them with humility, inclusiveness, and an openness to others, those they lead take notice. They feel more empowered. They actively work together for the common goals and greater good. And they set a tone in the organization.

We know from research on positive emotions[5] that when management asserts this quality of leadership (what I have described as Generative Leadership), it does more than produce positive attitudes and morale. The more open and inclusive climate they create acts as a catalyst in promoting cognitive flexibility, creativity, and capability building. It opens minds and hearts, but it also leads to the development of enduring capabilities (mental, physical, emotional, and social-organizational), especially important when encouraging development of early-career professionals

The broadening effects of an organizational climate that opens minds and hearts have been shown to promote racial tolerance and increased appreciation for individual differences. And the building effects have been shown to promote sustainable improvements in performance. On the flip side, however, we have long known that the use of coercion is of very limited effect. It may work in the short term, but we flee it as soon as we have the opportunity to do so.         

For more information:


[1] Melwani, et al (2012). Looking Down: The Influence of Contempt and Compassion on Emergent Leadership Categorization. Journal of Applied Psychology.

[2] Socio-comparative emotions are defined in this research as discrete emotions (e.g., contempt and compassion) with an underlying appraisal component that conveys a downward comparison with others, i.e., subordinates.

[3] Koenig et al (2011). Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms. Psychological Bulletin. This study indicates that more stereotypically feminine (collaborative, relational, communicative) qualities of leadership are beginning to take hold.

[4] Ou, et al (2014). Humble Chief Executive Officers' Connections to Top Management Team Integration and Middle Managers' Responses. Administrative Science Quarterly.

[5] Fredrickson & Branigan (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion.