Why Followers Follow Leaders Who Lust for Power

In the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump a large majority of Senate Republicans voted as they did in the first impeachment trial – to acquit. This time on the charge of inciting insurrection. But unlike the first time when only one Senator voted guilty, the second time seven Senate Republicans found Trump guilty as charged. Not many – but given the circumstance rather a large number.

What exactly is this circumstance? One in which most of the seven will pay a heavy political, and personal price for deviating from the party line. For example, one prominent Louisiana Republican called his fellow Republican, Bill Cassidy, who voted guilty, “a Senator without a party.” The North Carolina Republican Party Central Committee held an emergency meeting for the sole purpose of voting unanimously to censure their dissident senator, Richard Burr, who similarly had found Trump guilty as charged. And the Wyoming Republican Party censured Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third highest ranking Republican in the House, for having had the temerity to vote to impeach the the still venerated – or is it feared? – Donald Trump.

Leaders are supposed to have a range of admirable attributes. One of these is moderation. But as former president Trump demonstrates, even out of the Oval Office, leadership and moderation go hand in hand only some of the time. Other times, they do not. In fact, sometimes leadership is exemplified by the unbridled behaviors that leaders today are instructed to shun. Moreover, followers can be and often are attracted to leaders who are extreme. To leaders who are immoderate, who blatantly and even brazenly behave in ways that are at the end of a spectrum.

          The fact that overwhelmingly Republican Senators have stuck with Trump during his time in the White House is testimony to his inordinately strong and enduring popularity. Especially, obviously, among members of his base, ordinary people who self-identify as Republicans and who continue even now to stand by their man. Which raises – or it should – the question of why. Given that Trump evidenced an overweening desire to hold on to power – even after he demonstrably lost the November election – what was it about him, what is it about him, that makes him still attractive, appealing to large numbers of the American people? Why would anyone want to follow a leader with an insatiable appetite to dominate?    

          The literature on followers, on followership, remains scant. But it is not non- existent. There is evidence to suggest why followers are drawn to leaders who want to dominate everything and everyone. This evidence applies not only to leaders in the public sector, like Trump and authoritarian counterparts such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It applies as well to leaders in the private sector, such as, for example, the late Roger Ailes who controlled Fox News with the proverbial iron fist, and Elon Musk, who is a one-man band not just within Tesla but without.     

          Sometimes followers resist, of course, or, if they have the option, they even rebel. But other times followers freely and even eagerly remain where they are. The remain subordinate to a superior who craves power precisely because in most cases even these leaders provide benefits. Sometimes considerable benefits.

Followers are no fools. They receive, or they perceive they receive benefits both as individuals and as members of groups. Leaders satisfy our needs for safety and security. Leaders satisfy our needs for identity and community. And leaders satisfy our needs for ideological affinity, professional advancement, political connection, emotional gratification, and interpersonal satisfaction. Finally, leaders relieve us of the responsibility of running things. We pay them to protect us from harm. We pay them to make sure our paychecks are secure. We pay them to get the trains to run on time.

          Leaders who lust for power are no exception to the general rule – actually, they exemplify the general rule. Even in situations where followers are not free to leave – for example, they live in a country run by a leader who lusts for power, or they are stuck in a job in which their superior lusts for power – they are likely in some way to benefit even from having a leader hellbent on keeping control.

Since he came to power in 2013, most experts judge China’s president, Xi Jinping, to have evolved from authoritarian to totalitarian. However, during this same period Xi led his country in ways that rewarded his people with, for example, a surging economy, a strengthened military, and newfound power the world over. Similarly, Roger Ailes, the media mogul who built Fox News into a media powerhouse. By every account Ailes was inordinately difficult to work for. Intrusive and intimidating, coarse and crude, impossibly demanding and relentlessly bullying. Moreover, toward the end of his career it came out that he had tolerated a culture of sexual harassment. Yet subordinates, including many women, stayed, in this case freely, year after year, willingly subjecting themselves to Ailes’s tyrannical ways. Again, why? Because they calculated it was in their self-interest to do so. Motivated by attractions such as professional advancement, accumulation of money, proximity to power, and a glamorous industry, Ailes’s followers voluntarily engaged in a trade-off. They surrendered at least some of their integrity and independence to gamble that, in exchange, they would be rewarded personally, as well as professionally and financially.

          Counterintuitive it may be. But some followers want leaders who lust for power. Other followers accept without question leaders who lust for power. And still other followers put up with leaders who lust for power for reasons they deem good and sound. The point is that contrary to the conventional wisdom that permeates the leadership industry, followers are attracted to leaders who lust. Not all the time, but some of the time. Often enough that attention must be paid.      

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