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Romantic heroes or ‘one of us’ – how we judge political leaders is rarely objective or rational

Public Policy / opinion
Romantic heroes or ‘one of us’ – how we judge political leaders is rarely objective or rational
Like diehard sports fans, political bias can blind us to weaknesses in our own side. Getty Images.

By Suze Wilson*

Given the presidential style of modern politics, the intense media focus on party leaders is unavoidable. But this involves a degree of artifice. New Zealanders don’t vote directly for a prime minister, they vote for their preferred party and electorate candidate.

Technicalities aside, though, party leaders play a key role in shaping their party’s policies and soliciting public support. The upside of the attention they receive, therefore, is that voters get to scrutinise before they “buy”.

That’s especially important for undecided or swing voters. Not only can they compare policies, they can also examine each leader’s strengths and weaknesses, and gauge what values guide their approach.

Being head of state is a hugely challenging role – not least because leaders fundamentally get results through mobilising collective effort. If no one’s following, there is no leadership.

This is different from management, which largely revolves around detailed planning and then implementing and monitoring progress toward goals.

Leadership, however, involves connecting with people’s values and needs, and helping them make sense of events. It entails crafting a vision for the future and formulating credible strategies to achieve that.

It involves the capacity to make wise decisions, and role modelling what it means to be a person of good character. While managerial competency still matters, being a prime minister demands far more.

That said, trying to objectively evaluate a potential leader is not easy.

Favouring our own team

Humans strongly favour those they view as being “one of us”. A large body of research shows people trust, respect, support, care for and are more influenced by those they feel an affinity with. This sense of a shared identity might be based on common demographic characteristics, or shared interests and values.

Dedicated sports fans illustrate this well. Individually and collectively, they back their team no matter what. They wear team colours, idealise team members, mock opponents and boo referees – even if the ref is right.

The same socio-psychological forces are at play in the political domain.

The party faithful are unlikely to offer an objective view. They will likely overestimate the strengths and underestimate the weaknesses of their party’s policies and its leaders (and do the opposite when evaluating opposing parties).

This is clearly not helpful for undecided or swing voters. But even beyond partisan influences, determining what constitutes good leadership is a more vexed issue than we might imagine.

While people often hold strong views, the actual evidence about what constitutes “good” leadership is quite diverse and complex.

Fantasies and realities

There are many different theories, but researchers generally agree that “good leadership” is both ethical and effective. But people can often ignore those considerations when evaluating someone in (or aspiring to) a leadership role.

Subconsciously, we are inclined to judge leaders according to our own personal theories of leadership. This “implicit” bias is typically shaped by the kinds of behaviours role-modelled by the authority figures we were exposed to early in life.

A very strict parenting style, for example, which a child finds reassuring rather than restrictive, can lead them in later life to favour command-oriented or even authoritarian leaders.

Research indicates that even in democracies, about one-third of the population favours that kind of traditional “strong man” leadership style.

But scholars have long argued such leaders tend to be intolerant, oppressive, punitive, lacking in empathy and prone to bullying. They may resist being held to account for their actions, arrogantly believing they know best.

The political leader as action hero: Harrison Ford (right) as the US president in Air Force One (1997). Getty Images.

Romantic attachments

Popular culture and media narratives are other important influences on people’s ideas about leadership. In books, TV shows and movies, leaders are often depicted as heroic, larger-than-life characters with the capacity to save others, even the world. In the business media, it’s often implied CEOs have somehow turned a company around single-handedly.

Researchers call this the “romance” of leadership – a tendency to overstate what leaders can actually do, and to blame them when they fail to meet unrealistic expectations.

Indeed, no matter how skilled and dedicated, leaders are inevitably flawed, just like the rest of humanity. Nor are they omnipotent. New Zealand is a small and remote trading nation in an interconnected world, not a superpower or totalitarian state. There are many things its prime minister cannot control.

In that sense, an ability to manage expectations is an indicator of good leadership. Having the personal integrity to avoid making unrealistic promises is what serves democracy. Offering false hope is not good leadership, it’s more like what con artists and charlatans hungry for power do.

Check your bias

Overall, the evidence is that we’re not very rational or objective when it comes to evaluating leaders. Even if we’re not swayed by ideological factors, our personal experience and a romantic view of leadership can unconsciously cloud our judgment.

But there are some things we can do to help us make a more informed and balanced judgement. Firstly, we can try to step back and reflect on our own biases and assumptions about leadership. (You can even test your own bias on a number of issues with the Project Implicit online resource.)

Secondly, look for indicators of behaviours associated with good leadership. Many of these are the same character virtues we’d admire in anyone: integrity, fair-mindedness, the determination to do their best, confidence (but not arrogance), being accountable for their actions, and empathy and respect for others. These are vital foundations for good leadership.

And thirdly, look for actual evidence of leadership skills. Being prime minister is complex and challenging. It demands an ability to address serious issues in a serious-minded way.

Good leaders are not glib, superficial or unable to answer valid and reasonable questions. Consequently, a good leader may not tell you what you want to hear. But if they encourage us all to address difficult realities, that’s to be admired, not condemned.

As to whether that’s enough to win your vote, only you can be the judge of that.The Conversation

*Suze Wilson, Senior Lecturer, School of Management, Massey University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Don't vote for the sock-puppet's tie colour. Vote for the party's policies.


If only.

People did that for Labour, turns out the sock puppet has to actually be able to action said policies for them to work.


Ah but which ones? What if you don't like some of their policies?

I mentioned this in the Trotter thread


If all of the parties agree, you don't have a choice.


Which policy do they all agree on?


There is no such thing as a leader or a leader, we are just individuals and when we work cooperatively it can be useful to have organisation.


Do we all get another vote if the leader quits before the end of the parliamentary term?


That nice young man Winston Peters has chocolate biscuits after his meetings….


As someone who votes solely on a party's policies, and what I think is in the country's best interests, I lost a lot of faith in the system when Labour changed leaders a couple of elections back, basically ran with the same policies as they had previously, and saw their support increase significantly, simply because they had a new leader.

Sadly, for a significant portion of the voting public, it seems to be nothing more than a popularity contest, rather than an informed voting decision. 


This is one of the reasons I think Luxon is the worse National leader in living memory. If he can't even get people to follow him with the open goal Labour has presented him how can he expect to get the rest of the country to follow him. I mean even National supporters are choosing Winston over him he's so bad. Anyone with any modicum of self-awareness would realise they're not leadership material. He might be a good manager but not national calibre leader. 


I just want someone who is effective