A Selfish Leader Is the Product of Traits and Situation

Have you ever heard of “Fat Cat Thursday”[1]? It means that by the end of the first three working days of the year, some people— like the top CEOs — may have earned the amount of money a typical worker will take home in a year. While some wealthier people obviously enjoy more than almost everyone else, there is a prolonged debate about why people who have more resources seem to be more selfish. Some researchers provide their answers from the evolutionary and psychological view of power and hierarchy.

In the human society, sometimes there is no assigned leader in a unit, such as a leaderless team. When there is a leader, the person usually occupies the higher position in the hierarchy and possesses more resources (both tangible and intangible), including but not limited to, a safer habitat, admirations of followers, psychological leverage to act on their own will and a sense of entitlement. As the rank of hierarchy grants leader lopsided influence over resources, the drive for monopolistic control induces selfish decisions, just like Lord Acton’s famous saying, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

However, leaders are not always selfish. How a powerful person exercises the benefits his or her position depends on the interplay between one’s psychological traits and the situation. An experimental design study[2] found that, although most leaders facilitate achieving group goals, when a leader’s position is not secure and he or she has a strong motive to show dominance (which reflects an approach in which individuals value orders, attain and use power via force, and selfishly manipulate group resources), the leader prioritizes his or her own desires over group success.

What do these insecure and dominant leaders do? When their power is unstable (for example, a leader is replaceable if he or she does not achieve designated goals), dominant leaders withhold valuable information from their groups, exclude skilled group members from discussion and assign skilled members to less influential roles. These behaviors are partly due to the desire to protect their position.

Scientific evidence shows that it is human nature to act selfishly to protect one’s status. But there is a price! Next time when you feel upset because of having less power, think it this way: While the powerful people focus on protecting their personal wealth, they are sacrificing something more important: respect, valuable followers and perhaps the chance to prosper timelessly.



[1] Here's How Long It Takes the U.K's Top Bosses to Make an Average Worker's Salary. (2018, January 4) Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2018/01/03/uk-fat-cat-inequality-workers-wages

[2] Maner, J. K., & Mead, N. L. (2010). The essential tension between leadership and power: When leaders sacrifice group goals for the sake of self-interest. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99(3), 482-497.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.



Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.