Randomly selecting leaders could prove to be a remedy for hubris

History and the current geo-political climate show us how some glorified leaders lose their touch with reality


Amsterdam, May 13, 2020

While history shows us that power tends to corrupt, a team of Swiss and German researchers have recently examined historical examples of large-scale business fraud and misconduct at the highest-levels of government in order to highlight how leaders sometimes lose all sense of morality. Inflicting serious harm on their company or society in the process.

This new study in The Leadership Quarterly, published by Elsevier, suggests a change in the selection process may mitigate the one key factor to blame: hubris.

Leaders often attribute their success to their superior ability and bask in their own brilliance. Drunk from power and overconfidence, they embark on endeavors that often begin to bring about detrimental outcomes. In recent times, we have witnessed accounting fraud at Enron, software fraud at Volkswagen, and corruption at FIFA - the list of misconduct by successful top managers is long.

“In classical Athens and medieval Venice, political positions were filled using a mixed procedure of targeted selection and drawing by lots,” explained author Professor Katja Rost, University of Zurich, Switzerland. “We wanted to see how appointing leaders partly by random selection affected their performance.”

Candidates were pre-selected according to conventional performance criteria. After conducting a large laboratory experiment and reviewing the existing literature, Dr. Berger, Assistant Professor, University of Bern, Switzerland and his research team including, Profs. Margit Osterloh, University Basel, Switzerland, Rost, and Thomas Ehrmann, University Münster, Germany confirm that partly random selection avoids hubris in leaders.

Their analysis found that overconfident leaders selected partly randomly are less prone to misusing their power and making decisions that are more beneficial to other members of the group, compared to overconfident leaders selected through the usual competitive selection process.

A competitive selection process typically triggers leadership hubris of overconfident people due to two factors. First, positions of power are often occupied by persons with overconfidence; and second, competitive selection methods confirm overconfident leaders’ feeling that they are exceptional and perform far “above the average” of other candidates and feel entitled to enrich themselves.

In contrast, partly random selected leaders are more “humbled” than those selected by competitive methods without performing any less effectively.

“This study is intriguing and points to the problem of a current leaders selection methods. Yet, a potential better solution was discovered by city states and institutions of the past, who used, in part, random selection from a pool of candidates to appoint leaders,” said Dr. John Antonakis, Editor-in-Chief of The Leadership Quarterly. “Dr. Berger and his colleagues now provide experimental evidence to support such a practice; this article should stimulate more research but more importantly, further reflection too by institutional legislators and selectors of leaders.”

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Notes for editors
The article is "How to prevent leadership hubris? Comparing competitive selections, lotteries, and their combination," by Joël Berger, Margit Osterloh, Katja Rost, and Thomas Ehrmann (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2020.101388). It appears as an Article in Press in The Leadership Quarterly (May 2020), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact the Elsevier Newsroom at newsroom@elsevier.com. Journalists wishing to interview the authors can contact Prof. Katja Rost at katja.rost@uzh.ch or +41 79 745 90 50.

About The Leadership Quarterly
The Leadership Quarterly is a social-science journal dedicated to advancing our understanding of leadership as a phenomenon, how to study it, as well as its practical implications. The aim of the journal is to publish scholarly research, theory, and developmental application from diverse fields of inquiry about leadership. The journal will consider studies of leaders from all walks of social life, including formal or informal leaders of any type of group or organization; non-human leadership will also be considered.

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps scientists and clinicians to find new answers, reshape human knowledge, and tackle the most urgent human crises. For 140 years, we have partnered with the research world to curate and verify scientific knowledge. Today, we’re committed to bringing that rigor to a new generation of platforms. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, SciVal, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, 39,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX, a global provider of information-based analytics and decision tools for professional and business customers. www.elsevier.com

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