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Why People Follow Toxic Leaders (And How This Relates to the 2020 Election)

The election results (or non-results) have left us all puzzled. We are puzzled about who is winning, when we will know who won, and even then if that result will stand. It's enough to make your head spin. However, another question is causing even more heartache for many. Why did so many Americans vote to keep Donald Trump in power?


Or why did people choose to support a toxic leader (please see my LinkedIn post from April to understand my claims on this) when they had another option? How is it possible that people would choose division, bullying (and that is what his tweets are), and lies? People are in disbelief at how this could happen. Unfortunately, I understand what happened from studying toxic leadership. Thus, I thought I would share a bit to help make sense of what is occurring now.


Before diving in, I want to make a few disclaimers. First, this is not a political assessment--this is a leadership assessment. I do not care about stances on political issues at this point; I care about leadership practices and that is what I am assessing. Second, not everyone who voted for Trump falls in this framework. There are die-hard Republicans and others who have other reasons. This post's purpose is to help explain the "Trump movement" we are seeing (caravans with Trump flags, threatened violence, etc) and the one that is troubling us the most. And last, I want to share I have based my thoughts on Jean Lipman-Blumen's book The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians and How We Can Survive Them.


Okay...now to what has happened...from my informed, scholarly perspective.


Feeling "Wronged"

Toxic leaders come into power and create a "following" when people feel wronged. Specifically, this happens on a large scale when people, a community, organization, country, etc. believe they are better than what others perceive them and they are hungry for the respect they believe they deserve. They believe their position of greatness has been taken from them and they are eager to gain this feeling and position back.


If you look at the map of where Trump has won the vast majority of his votes, it is in rural America. Trump won the last election on promising these individuals he would make them great again. He would restore farmers', steelworkers', and blue-collar workers' power. When was the last time, before the 2016 election, these individuals were made to feel like they were the future of America? It had been a long time. So, there were millions of Americans who believed they worked hard and were being "wronged" by the emphasis on technology, big business, and white-collar workers. They felt wronged and Trump saw this. He saw a large group of Americans ready to be empowered and "righted." He identified his following, and they were hungry for a leader.


Creation of Noble Visions

Once a toxic leader has identified their target group, they work to rally the group around a noble vision. Noble visions are basically a grand plan, goal, or mission. Noble visions serve as a rallying cry for the group and are seen as the ultimate and most important goal. In other words, a noble vision becomes the group's reason to exist. These noble visions are aspirational and the followers believe if they obtain the noble vision, the world would truly be a better place. The toxic leaders enroll the followers in a noble vision that aligns with the feelings followers have about being wronged. In turn, the noble vision becomes a way they can right the wrongs they feel or believe.


I'm sure I do not need to tell you what Trump's noble vision was/is--Make America Great Again (MAGA). Trump enrolled his followers in the belief that they needed to make America great again and this meant restoring power to his followers (rural America). He argued America was prosperous when we valued hard physical work and the "good ole American philosophies." He contended he could restore this "greatness" by empowering "the people" and removing all the political barriers. In other words, America was no longer great or strong; to restore this greatness and strength, we needed to change who was valued and who was in charge. More power was needed at the individual level and this power would make America great again.


Identifying the Enemy

Noble visions are not enough to inspire followers of truly toxic leaders (or at a large-scale level). Toxic leaders must also identify the enemy for their followers. Specifically, they need to identify who is causing the wrong they feel and who is standing in their way of achieving their noble vision. These people, organization, community, country, etc. are the enemy. And, in true fashion, the enemy needs to be defeated. The toxic leader's group now is impassioned to correct the wrongs they have been feeling, defend the noble vision, and defeat the enemy. If you think about it, it makes sense. When we feel we have been wronged and that it doesn't align with a noble vision, we want to know who caused it and let them know how we feel. It makes sense.


The enemies have changed a bit in the Trump campaign. First, in 2016, immigrants were the enemy. Immigrants were taking jobs away from hard-working Americans. The immigrants needed to be defeated and Trump was going to do this by building a HUUUUUGE beautiful wall. A wall that would protect blue-collar Americans from losing their jobs. Trump had to change his narrative for this second campaign (as the wall..well.. you know that story) and he's been changing it for the past two years (it is very calculated). The enemy this time: Democrats or liberals. The Democrats, if elected, would make American a socialist country. They would take away the power and share it with others...and they would limit people's rights. They would make people wear masks, take away guns, and shut down the economy again to tackle the coronavirus. The Democrats would make America less than great again (if you do not believe me, please listen to Trump's July 4th speech this year). Trump started pitting his followers against other Americans he was also leading (or supposed to be leading).


Beating the Enemy: The End Justifies the Means

Toxic leaders convince their followers the end is what matters--not how you get there. In other words, it does not matter how you play the game, it only matters that you win. The noble vision is, after all, the single most important thing to protect. To protect the noble vision, enemies have to be defeated, and it does not matter how they are defeated just that they are. This means --quite literally in many case studies of toxic leaders--any and everything is on the proverbial table to be used. The leader and followers can lie, cheat, bully, and harm others to protect their cause.


This is where the moral question comes in that many of us are asking... how can so many people continue to support someone who lacks a moral compass? Trump has blatantly lied on thousands (if not millions) of occasions, he has cheated (i.e. taxes), bullied (check his Twitter feed or read Rage), and has harmed millions of people (i.e. COVID-19 and racial injustices not being dealt with under his watch). And, for his followers, this is just part of the process. He has to do these things...because if he doesn't America would not be great (and they would not be great). Additionally, Trump and his followers believe he has to act this way because everyone else is out to get him (i.e. tonight's press conference). So, to them, it doesn't matter, as the actions are justified.


Conclusion

Our literature and research show us people follow toxic leaders because they believe they have been wronged. This feeling of being wronged allows them to easily enroll in a noble vision to "fix" this wrongdoing. This noble vision is always threatened by an enemy, an enemy that must be defeated regardless of what it takes. This is why people follow toxic leaders and therefore, in my informed opinion, we have millions of people passionately supporting Trump right now.


I understand all of this from a scholarly perspective, as presented in this post. However, I must admit, my heart still struggles to understand this. I do not understand why we do not value leadership principles more in our President. I also struggle that I currently have a president (leader) who views me as the enemy and wants to make me cry (see the picture in this post). I struggle with people choosing this division over unity. I also struggle with the fact that I, someone who respects peoples' right to choose, am fundamentally disappointed so many people chose a toxic leader over....well...the hope of not having one.

Reference

Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians- and how we can survive them. Oxford University Press.

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