People with dysfunctional childhood more likely to support tyrannical leaders

SAN FRANCISCO – Being domineering, selfish, or obnoxious doesn’t usually make people lots of friends. Despite being the key traits of tyrants, researchers say individuals like this manage to gain a considerable following. A new study sheds light on why, suggesting people with dysfunctional childhoods tend to support tyrannical leadership styles when they’re older.

“We see it all the time — where the obnoxious leader rises to the top, but we don’t know much about why,” says lead author Dayna Herbert Walker in a media release. “Tyrants, whether they be in the boardroom or in politics, wouldn’t have the power they do if followers didn’t support them. We often look to leaders to explain leadership, but we should also be looking to followers.”

Does support for tyrants begin at home?

In the study, researchers from San Francisco State University surveyed 130 people at age 17 (in 1996) and again two decades later in 2016. The initial set of survey questions in 1996 focused on participants’ home environments. The questions probe whether people living in the participants’ homes raise their voices, criticize others, or demonstrate physical violence.

The survey questions in 2016 asked participants to rate which leadership traits they thought were characteristic of an ideal leader. The traits participants were asked about are also ones scientists attribute to a tyrannical personality. These traits include being domineering, pushy, dominant, manipulative, power-hungry, conceited, loud, selfish, obnoxious, and demanding.

The California team finds people who report having high conflict in their homes as teens are 20 percent more likely to say that tyrannical traits are characteristics of ideal leaders as adults.

Herbert Walker explains that these findings could have important implications for various types of leaders, including the participants’ own bosses.

“The first step is getting them to question their assumptions about why they do what they do,” the study adds. “Maybe they’ll realize that they believe this, because that’s how their dad behaved and he was successful in business. And so they believe that’s how they’re supposed to act.”

The study is published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

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