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'Sheep in wolf's clothing' the best leaders in tough times

Generous, altruistic leaders -- the Mother Teresas among us -- might earn their followers' respect and affection, but in tough times, people look to more ruthless, self-serving leaders to carry them through a crisis, a new study shows.


While we all might prefer to work for a saintly personality like Mother Teresa, when the going gets tough most people would rather be led by a self-serving toughie like Al Capone, a new study says.

For leaders and those aspiring to lead, the results suggest that during the current economic challenges, "it might be time to become a sheep in wolf's clothing – become tougher and more dominant and less altruistic than you are," said study co-author Robert Livingston, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"The study found that contributing generously to the group can actually lower your status. That's counter to what other research has shown, but we found there is a difference between the prestige and admiration you get from other people, and what people perceive as your power and dominance," Prof. Livingston said.

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People who are highly admired are perceived as desirable leaders in noncompetitive contexts, but they are seen as submissive compared with those who strive to maximize their personal gains, a series of experiments found.

Subjects were divided into groups of five and given the option to keep an initial amount of money for themselves or contribute it to a group pool. If everyone co-operated, the money would be tripled and divvied up. If no one co-operated, no one would get to keep their cash. But if one person refused to co-operate, he or she could get slightly more than the others in their own group and might set back other groups as well.

Those who acted selfishly were rated high in dominance by other team members, but got lower marks for respect and admiration. In contrast, those who generously shared resources with other group members gained respect and admiration, but got lower marks for dominance.

And those who shared equally with both outsiders and members of their own group scored among the lowest in both prestige and dominance.

"People contribute to their group because they do get something from it; because we are social animals, getting respect makes people feel good," Prof. Livingston noted. "But, paradoxically, our findings show generosity can lower a person's status."

That is counter to what previous studies have shown, he said. "But what we found is that there are two types of status. What past results measured was prestige; the other, that this study measured is dominance. Giving more to the group gives you more prestige, but it doesn't increase your dominance."

People who are seen as egalitarian and altruistic – the Mother Teresas among us – can be widely admired and respected, but "the question is, would people admire them enough to elect them as president or chief executive officer? If we were on the verge of war, they would be more likely to elect Al Capone or Donald Trump," Prof. Livingston said.

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"You are better off showing a little aloofness – it makes you seem to be stronger. Giving makes you seem softer and needier," he added.

"This is not to say that all leaders should become Scrooges or go against their nature. You can help others, but you have to make sure that people also know who is boss and that there are consequences if you are crossed," Prof. Livingston said.

Even the most selfish tyrants can be generous to their family and those in their organization, because it creates loyalty, he added. "But outside the group they're effective, because they're perceived as dominant. They're people you won't want to mess with."

The study was co-authored by Nir Halevy, Stanford University acting assistant professor of organizational behaviour; Taya Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University; and Kellogg doctoral student Eileen Chou. It will appear in a coming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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