In the United States, the Presidential election cycle is in full swing. The debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are about to begin. Voters are making up their minds, and early voting has already begun in some states.
In 2008, one of the big factors that helped to sweep Obama into office was that he was seen as an inspiring and visionary leader. The country was mired in two wars, and an economic crisis threatened to plunge the US into a depression. In that context, Obama’s campaign speeches about hope and change resonated with the voters.
A paper in the July, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Nir Halevy, Yair Berson, and Adam Galinsky explored why people seek out visionary leaders.
Research on leadership suggests that there are two conflicting sets of qualities that people look for in a leader. At times, people want a visionary—a leader who will guide them to be better than themselves. At other times, though, people seem to want a leader who is one of them—a person that they can relate to. Indeed, in the 2000 election, George W. Bush gained in popularity over Al Gore, because he was seen as likeable. Bush was a candidate people could imagine sitting down and talking to over a beer.
In one study, Halevy, Berson, and Galinsky had college students read a scenario in which they experienced a personal crisis (they were trapped in a burning apartment) or a group crisis (their fraternity/sorority house burned down and, although nobody was hurt, everything was destroyed). Unsurprisingly, students reading these scenarios felt sad, scared, and anxious.
Afterward, participants read about two candidates who were running to be president of their fraternity/sorority. One candidate was described as a visionary leader who inspired other students. The other was described as a typical student who shares opinions with most other members of the group. The participants rated their degree of support for each candidate. Not surprisingly, the visionary candidate got more support from participants overall than the candidate who was similar to most other group members.
After rating their endorsement of the candidates, participants rated their mood again. Interestingly, the more strongly people endorsed the visionary candidate, the more that their mood recovered from the negative feelings they had after reading about the crisis in the first part of the study. This effect was particularly strong in the group crisis condition (where the house burned down). That is, visionary leaders help people feel better in times of crisis.
In a second study, participants read about a crisis in which a fire burned a large part of a town. Afterward, they read a speech by the town’s mayor. The speech either emphasized hope for the future—the kind of speech a visionary leader often gives—or it emphasized how everyone is part of the same community—a less visionary speech. After reading these speeches, participants indicated how much time they would volunteer to help the community repair itself after the fire. Participants who read the visionary speech were willing to commit about 25% more hours than those who read the other speech.
These studies suggest that visionary leaders are particularly attractive in times of crisis. Leaders who express a vision for the future and give a message of hope make people feel more comfort when times are bad. At the same time, these leaders seem to energize people to want to take action.
Is there a downside to being a visionary leader?
A candidate presented as a visionary runs some risk. Hope is an anticipatory emotion. People who are hopeful are looking forward to the future when things will get better. Campaigns are focused on the future, and so visionary messages play well, particularly in difficult times. The task of governing, though, is one that must be done day-to-day. Most of the world’s problems are not ones that can be solved immediately. And situations can sometimes get worse before they get better. So, visionary leaders run the risk that people will become disillusioned.