A person who experiences high conflict during adolescence is more likely to prefer a tyrannical model of leadership


Ever wonder how some leaders in business or politics who appear selfish, manipulative and domineering still manage to amass a following?

A recent study in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies by San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Management Dayna Herbert Walker found a connection between a person’s childhood family environment and the types of leaders they’re drawn to as grown-ups.

Using data from the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, a long-term study that began tracking families in 1979, Herbert Walker and three other researchers noticed a correlation between adolescents who reported a high level of conflict at home and those who later identified socially undesirable traits as ideal leadership qualities.

“We see it all the time — where the obnoxious leader rises to the top, but we don’t know much about why,” Herbert Walker said.

“Tyrants, whether they be in the boardroom or in politics, wouldn’t have the power they do if followers didn’t support them. We often look to leaders to explain leadership, but we should also be looking to followers.”

The survey, which tracked 130 individuals at various points of their life, gave researchers details about participants’ home lives and the leadership traits they valued most. Researchers studied data gathered in 1996, when participants were 17 years old.

Two decades later, as part of another round of data collection for the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, researchers asked the same individuals questions about ideal leadership qualities.

The 1996 survey asked participants about their family dynamics, such as whether people at home raised their voices, criticized one another or were physically violent. Twenty years later, those respondents were asked to measure on a scale whether 10 qualities researchers defined as tyrannical (domineering, pushy, dominant, manipulative, power-hungry, conceited, loud, selfish, obnoxious and demanding) were characteristics present in their image of an ideal leader.

“It’s critical that we asked about ideal leadership and not just leadership in general,” Herbert Walker said, “because we really wanted to get at a person’s favored leadership image, the characteristics they ideally want to see in their leaders.”

Herbert Walker and the study’s other authors then compared the data from 2016 and 1996 and found a strong positive connection between those who reported living with a high level of conflict at home and those whose ideal image of a leader possessed these negative traits.

A person who experiences high conflict in adolescence is 20% more likely than chance to prefer a tyrannical model of leadership, controlling for other known factors that shape leadership preferences like sex and personality.

When adolescent family environments contain a high amount of dysfunctional conflict, it’s likely that some tyrannical behavior is on display and that role modeling can shape the way a person views leadership, Herbert Walker explains.

The findings shed new light on what ideal leadership can look like for some followers, illuminating why some of us are drawn to tyrants despite their harsh approach.

Herbert Walker says another group could learn important lessons from the findings, as well: bad bosses. For instance, a manager who believes leaders should be overbearing or manipulative could end up acting out those traits.

“The first step is getting them to question their assumptions about why they do what they do,” she said. “Maybe they’ll realize that they believe this, because that’s how their dad behaved and he was successful in business. And so they believe that’s how they’re supposed to act.”

Antisocial behavior is usually understood to be behavior that violates social norms and harms the rights of others (Peña and Graña, 2006). Many people exhibit this kind of behavior at some point in their lives. However, this is usually infrequent and limited to certain points in time and specific contexts.

Adolescence is particularly prone to it, as it is a stage of seeking and experimentation which is key to the formation of personal identity and in which peer acceptance is particularly important. Antisocial behavior is occasionally used by adolescents to be accepted, or to improve their status within a group. Despite that, in a small number of cases, antisocial behavior can be a stable characteristic that persist into adulthood (Moffitt, 1993).

Antisocial behavior produces significant personal and social harm. A person who engages in this behavior, especially if sustained over time, may have reduced educational or work opportunities; it may lead to maladjusted behaviors in adulthood (substance abuse, criminal activities), as well as mental health issues; and it might lead to legal consequences.

Those affected by this behavior may suffer physical, emotional or economic consequences. The social consequences of this behavior consume significant resources in mental health, education and juvenile justice systems (Cook et al., 2015; Sawyer et al., 2015).

Antisocial behavior in adolescence, and its persistence into adulthood, has been explained by the interaction between personality traits of vulnerability and environmental factors which strengthen or inhibit these traits. Certain personality traits constitute a vulnerability for the development of antisocial behavior depending on contextual factors.

In order to prevent the problem it is necessary to identify these variables, which act as protective or risk factors (Álvarez-García et al., 2018). Regarding environmental factors, the most important contexts of influence and socialization for adolescents are family and friends. However, there is little current research with large samples that looks at how impulsivity and empathy specifically modulate the effect of family and friends on antisocial behavior in adolescence.

Parenting practices influence children’s behavior (Ruiz-Hernández et al., 2019). The different parenting styles have traditionally been defined in terms of two dimensions: responsiveness and demandingness (Maccoby and Martin, 1983).

Close relationships, support and communication on the part of parents, as well as setting limits of behavior and supervision of what their children do or experience, depending on their level of autonomy, are positive for child development.

Parental warmth and behavioral control are protective factors for externalizing behaviors, aggression, delinquency, and consumption of alcohol or addictive substances (Hoskins, 2014), especially when they occur together. Both overprotection and hostile and intrusive control are risk factors for these problems (Pinquart, 2017).

In adolescence, the influence of family tends to decrease as the influence of friends increases. Antisocial friendships are a significant risk factor for both violent and non-violent antisocial behavior (Cutrín et al., 2017). The type of friendships can enhance or diminish the influence of parenting practices (Lansford et al., 2003).

Parents can influence their children’s friendships, directly or indirectly. For example, parent’s decisions can affect the type of friends their children will have (choice of neighborhood, school, activities, etc.); they can transmit attitudes, values and abilities which mold and influence their children’s behavior, social reputation, and groups they join (Brown et al., 1993).

Parental monitoring is a protective factor for deviant peers (Cutrín et al., 2015). In addition, if parents establish a warm, communicative environment, it is more likely for the adolescents to spontaneously tell them about what is happening in their lives, what they do, and who they do it with (Álvarez-García et al., 2016a), which makes it easier for the parents to exercise some control over their children’s friendships.

These two contexts (family and friends) can not only influence adolescents’ antisocial behavior directly, but also indirectly through their effect on certain personality traits such as impulsivity and a lack of empathy, which increase the likelihood of behaving in an antisocial manner.

Impulsivity refers to having difficulties in controlling impulses, acting without considering the consequences of the action for oneself or others (Stahl et al., 2014). Previous research has found higher levels of self-control in children in families with a parenting style characterized by affection and communication (Wills et al., 2004), behavioral control (Li et al., 2015) and authoritative parenting style (Burt et al., 2006).

The positive effects of parental control occur mainly when it happens in a warm parental context. In addition, there is evidence that deviant peer relationships are a risk factor for impulsivity (Burt et al., 2006). Impulsivity is in turn a risk factor for antisocial behavior (Jones et al., 2011).

Empathy is usually defined as the capacity to understand and share others’ feelings (Oliveira et al., 2018). There is ample evidence that a lack of empathy is a significant risk factor for antisocial behavior (Van Langen et al., 2014).

It is not only a risk factor for antisocial behavior which harms others. Behavior which harms oneself, such as the consumption of illegal drugs, may be more likely in those with low empathy.

They may have difficulties identifying significant others’ disapproval (concern, anger, fear, etc.) and the negative consequences of their behavior on others (Massey et al., 2018). In a similar way to self-control, empathy is positively related to parental warmth (Boele et al., 2019), parental control (Asano et al., 2016) and authoritative parenting style (Mesurado and Richaud, 2017). There is also evidence of a negative association between relating with antisocial friendships and empathy (Padilla-Walker and Bean, 2009).

The aim of this work is to analyze the effect of family (affection and communication, behavioral control) and friends (antisocial friendships) on adolescent antisocial behavior, and the mediating role of adolescents’ impulsivity and empathy, in a large sample of Spanish adolescents. Given the research examined previously, we expect the theoretical model shown in Figure 1 to have a good fit to the empirical data.

Figure 1. Starting theoretical model (AC, affection and communication; BC, behavioral control; I, impulsivity; AF, antisocial friendships; E, empathy; AB, antisocial behavior; +, positive relation; −, negative relation).

San Francisco State University


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