People might think highly of selfless, martyr-esque leaders, but when push comes to shove, a Northwestern University study found that a pushy, power-seeking leader is the one who garners the most respect.

“People with high prestige are often regarded as saints, possessing a self-sacrificial quality and strong moral standards,” said study author Robert Livingston. “However, while these individuals are willing to give their resources to the group, they are not perceived as tough leaders.”

Researchers from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management conducted three experiments to prove that “people with high prestige are perceived as desirable leaders in noncompetitive contexts but that they are viewed as submissive in comparison to individuals who strive to maximize their personal gains. In times of competition, individuals who are less altruistic are seen as dominant and more appealing as leaders.” Participants were were given the option of keeping an endowment—10 game chips worth a total of $20—for themselves or contribute it to a group pool. These contributions either benefitted the contributor’s fellow group members or simultaneously benefitted the contributor’s group members while also harming members of another group.

“Our findings show that people want respectable and admired group members to lead them at times of peace, but when ‘the going gets tough,’ they want a dominant, power-seeking individual to lead the group,” said lead author Nir Halevy. “This research begins to explore when ‘nice guys’ finish first and when they finish last, depending on the group context. ‘Nice guys’ don’t make it to the top when their group needs a dominant leader to lead them at a time of conflict.”

Source: Northwestern University

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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