Opinion: Why we always get the wrong political leaders - and how to get the right ones

Brian Klaas

Brian Klaas

Power attracts those most likely to abuse it and then makes them worse. So how do we stop voting for narcissistic psychopaths asks Dr Brian Klaas (UCL School of European Languages Culture & Society).

Douglas Adams once wrote of a planet on which humans are ruled by lizard overlords. There’s a paradox: the planet is a democracy, the humans hate and outnumber the lizards and yet the lizards always get elected. It turns out the humans vote for the lizards for a simple reason: "If they didn’t... the wrong lizard might get in."

Maybe, just maybe, that planet is closer to Earth than we’d like to admit.

We love to hate our leaders. They often deserve our loathing. Boris Johnson, who seems determined to provide a fresh meaning to the words "political party", is no exception. While the rest of us followed the rules he set, he brazenly broke them.

Not for the first time, either. In fact, an alien observing modern Britain might wonder whether our system of government rewarded those who lied and cheated and engaged in sleaze, so long as they used clever turns of phrase and delivered them with a roguish smirk.

Nor is Johnson alone. Scandals, abuse of power and hypocrisy dominate our headlines, from Downing Street to the boardroom. The people in charge make a mess of things. But the alternatives we’re offered are alarmingly lizard-like too. Across the pond, there are 330 million Americans who could become president. And yet the 2024 election is shaping up to be a contest between a gaffe-prone 81-year-old and... Donald Trump.

It doesn’t have to be that way: we can have better choices and better leaders. But to work out how, we must find the answer to the question: why do we end up with so many people in power who aren’t fit to manage a tea van?

I’ve been obsessed by that question for the past decade. I’ve interviewed hundreds of powerful people: despots, corrupt kingpins, crooked chief executives, power-hungry generals, cult leaders, abusive managers, bloodthirsty rebel leaders and, yes, those in the highest echelons of British politics.

I’ve sat down with dozens of fellow researchers who study distinct pieces of this complex puzzle: neuroscientists who run experiments on what power does to your brain chemistry; evolutionary biologists who explore why humans are so often drawn to the wrong kinds of leader; psychologists who can’t get enough of narcissistic psychopaths.

I’ve concluded that there are three big problems.

First, power is magnetic to corruptible people. Just about everywhere you look, the worst kind of people are drawn to gaining authority over others. That’s especially true for people with a particularly destructive psychological cocktail known as the dark triad: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy.

If you rack your brain, you may perhaps be able to think of a few political leaders in modern times who are Machiavellian narcissists, perhaps with a dash of psychopathy thrown in too. At the extremes, these individuals are unimaginably destructive.

I sipped wine with Marie-France Bokassa, the daughter of a murderous, cannibalistic dictator. Her father, Jean-Bédel, killed others to obtain power, spent millions in 1977 on his jewel-encrusted coronation in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest countries on the planet, and went on to feed his opponents to crocodiles.

Perhaps that power-hungry personality is inherited. "My father put a mark on me, like I was part of the Bokassa brand," Marie-France told me. "Bokassa - it’s a name that is powerful," she said with a grin. "I wouldn’t want to change it."

Second, Lord Acton was right: power does tend to corrupt. There’s plenty of research showing that decent, well-intentioned people frequently succumb to the corrosive effects of power.

Dacher Keltner, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent decades showing the effects of power on individuals. "People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children and to communicate in rude, profane and disrespectful ways," he says.

A woman named Ma Anand Sheela stands out as a prime example. She began her adult life as an idealistic art student, searching for spiritual enlightenment in India. A few years later she began to drink at the trough of power, serving as the spokeswoman of the Indian cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who was then living in America. Soon she began hatching plots to assassinate politicians who crossed her, and in 1984 she masterminded the poisoning of 750 people while trying to rig a local election, becoming the worst bioterrorist in American history. But when I met her more recently in Switzerland, she had lost power and was running a care home. There has been no further hint of abuse.

Third, we give power to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Power is relational: you can’t be a leader without followers. We might wish to forget it, but many of the leaders we loathe most were elected by our fellow citizens - from Hitler and Papa Doc Duvalier to Hugo Chavez, Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. There are complicated reasons why we’re seduced by charlatans and strongmen, with roots in the ancient past of our species. Evolutionary psychologists argue that our brains haven’t evolved much since the Stone Age, when following an overconfident strongman hunter might have been a good idea. Our societies have changed radically, and it’s no longer a smart strategy; our brains haven’t caught up.

But the point is this: much of the time, when we wonder how someone so unfit for the job ended up in charge, we need only look in a society-sized mirror. When you listen to a train-crash interview with a cabinet minister fumbling over answers to basic questions, remember that. Like it or not, we put them there.

What makes these three toxic tendencies more interesting is that they are recognisable across the globe - and through the millennia. Worse, each reinforces the others, compounding the problem. Corruptible people are disproportionately drawn to power, disproportionately good at wriggling their way into it and disproportionately likely to cling to it once they’ve got it.

How can we replace our corruptible ruling class with people who don’t want power but would wield it justly?

The answer lies in tweaking the systems that govern our societies. Systems either accelerate the conveyor belt of corruptible people into power or slow them down. We can’t stop some innate tendencies, but we can block the worst among us from taking charge - or at least limit the damage they do once they get there.

Systems matter. In one study students in India were asked to roll a standard die 42 times. Every time someone rolled a six, they’d get paid. But the students could report their own scores. As you’d expect, some lied - one claimed he had rolled a six 42 times in a row. When the researchers crunched the numbers and surveyed the students about their career ambitions, they found something striking: the students who lied about their die rolls were more likely to want to become civil servants. In India’s corrupt bureaucracy, that’s the path to more easy payoffs.

When they repeated the study in Denmark, where the civil service is squeaky clean, the results were inverted. The students who reported their die rolls honestly wanted to join the civil service.

Good systems attract good people, and rotten systems attract rotten people. Humans may have some destructive tendencies when it comes to wielding power, but we can counteract them with the right reforms.

To start, we need to recruit more smartly. Too often we wait for people to self-select for positions of power. Whether it’s running for office or angling for a fast-track promotion, we usually let people seek power, rather than seeking out people who would be good at wielding it. Should we be surprised that power-hungry megalomaniacs are the ones most eager to put themselves forward?

The absurdity of our complacency is often most obvious at the extremes. In the remote village of Stebbins, Alaska, the police department had trouble filling vacancies and hired whoever came forward. As a result, there was a period in which every officer had been convicted of domestic violence. The chief of police was no exception. He had been convicted of 17 crimes over 25 years, including assault and sexual abuse of a minor.

Stebbins offers a cautionary tale. Political parties shouldn’t wait for corruptible people to put themselves forward. They should seek community leaders who have proven ability to behave with integrity. Better yet, recruit those who would see power as a burden rather than a calling. If we wait to see who steps forward, as we often do in modern society, we have only ourselves to blame when we end up with a power-hungry narcissist in charge.

We must also reconsider how we recruit and hire. When researchers have submitted identical CVs with names randomly assigned as male or female, and black or white, the evidence was clear: those with white and male names got more interviews. Anonymisation would lead to a more meritocratic system. (At University College London I grade essays distinguished by a number, not a name. It is a fairer system.)

Job and promotion interviews should be rethought too. They’re short-term performances. Who are best at making others like them for a short period of time? Extrovert, overconfident sociopathic narcissists. Perhaps it would be better to design systems that didn’t cater to those personality traits. (Elections, unfortunately, are unavoidably performative.)

Something for Sue Gray - who is investigating whether the No 10 gatherings broke lockdown rules - to bear in mind is that accountability is also crucial. When leaders get away with awful behaviour, they - and their successors - keep testing the limits.

Two economists provide an instructive lesson from an unexpected phenomenon: illegal parking. In New York officials who work at the UN have diplomatic immunity. That used to mean that anyone with diplomatic plates could park illegally without consequence. Over several years they racked up $18 million in fines from more than 150,000 tickets. But the illegal parking wasn’t randomly distributed. Diplomats from countries such as Norway and Japan tended to follow the rules, while those from places such as Egypt and Yemen racked up hundreds of tickets each. But there was a wrinkle. The longer it was clear the Norwegians and Japanese could park however they wanted, the more they started parking illegally.

In the early 2000s the city’s mayor, Mike Bloomberg, had had enough. He started enforcing the fines. Almost overnight the Egyptians and Yemenis started parking like the Japanese and Norwegians. Cultures of corruption play a role, but accountability can quickly cause misbehaving leaders to clean up their act.

For accountability to be most effective, we should exploit randomness and targeted oversight against the powerful figures who can do the most harm.

When I interviewed the former head of internal affairs at the New York police department, he told me his team had used random stings to test officers. An officer would arrive at a crime scene and find stacks of cash waiting to be pocketed rather than reported. If the officer took the money, he or she would be fired or arrested. When internal affairs surveyed officers, 12,000 said they believed they had been targeted by one of these stings. The real number was closer to 500. Some of the officers encountered real crime scenes with cash on the table but assumed it was a setup. It made the force behave better.

Sting operations targeted at the powerful might not always work, but perhaps it would be good if Britain’s ministers had to think twice before awarding government contracts. We’d all be better off if they had reason to wonder whether the lobbyists or contract-seekers who had been glad-handing them were part of an undercover exposé.

Even with the best reforms, there’s no silver bullet. Bad, power-hungry people will end up in charge. To help guide them to better behaviour, we should use a process called sortition - random selection of citizens for leadership, a bit like jury duty for politics - to create better oversight.

A randomly selected shadow parliament of 650 people wouldn’t have real power but would debate and decide on the same issues as parliament. Often divergences between the real parliament and the shadow one would be caused by the trappings of power: lobbyists, chumocracies, partisanship and electoral calculations. The shadow parliament would highlight when politicians were making decisions for all the wrong reasons.

If there is to be a leadership challenge, perhaps we should engineer systems that produce saviours instead of hoping that one will simply emerge. Otherwise we’ll continue to be stuck on our absurd Douglas Adams planet, doomed to live with his astute, but unfortunate, assessment: "It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job."

This article first appeared in The Times on 15th January 2022.

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