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Research suggests that many people can and do lead because they want to help others

In an era when the motives and ambitions of leaders such as Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron are under constant public and media scrutiny, new research conducted at the University of Kent has suggested that many people can and do lead because they want to help others.

Although the research does not deny that some people want to and do lead in order to garner status and dominance over others, it has overturned traditional theories about leadership and challenged the leading hypothesis about the likely motives and personalities of leaders.

Until now, most evolutionary biologists and psychologists have considered leadership as the outcome of a competition for status in which people compete for the right to dominate and exploit others. This hypothesis predicts that leaders will be selfish and egoistic.

However, the outcome of this latest research, which was conducted by Dr Edward Cartwright (University of Kent), Joris Gillet (University of Osnabrueck) and Professor Mark van Vugt (VU University, Amsterdam), shows that the difference could not be more stark.

In their forthcoming paper, to be published by the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the team report on experiments, run at the University of Kent, that support a radically different hypothesis. Through experiments in two economic coordination games, they looked at the personality traits of people who choose to be leaders. Their results found that leaders were more likely to be rated as pro-social rather than selfish. Moreover, those who chose to lead typically earned less money than those who chose to follow. They seemingly sacrificed their own payoff to potentially increase the payoffs of others.

Dr Cartwright, Senior Lecturer at Kent’s School of Economics, explained: ‘Our results suggest that leadership is a way for people to be helpful and engender coordination and cooperation between others. This paints a much more positive view of leadership than is typical, and we were surprised by how clear cut the results are. In both the games we looked at, everything points towards selfless rather than selfish leaders. This really challenges the way we think about leaders.’

Professor Van Vugt, an Honorary Professor at Kent and the paper’s co-author, said: 'Our data supports the view that leadership emerged in human societies as a social good. Yet this does not mean that leaders will not abuse their power once they find themselves in charge of a group – in fact many do. But for every Mugabe there is a Mandela and the latter is much closer to the way we want our leaders to be: fair, inspiring and servant.’

‘Selfish or servant leadership? Evolutionary predictions on leadership personalities in coordination games’ will be published in Personality and Individual Differences (


Story published at 9:14am 12 August 2010

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