Do we need a different kind of leader during uncertain times like a pandemic?


I keep my eyes open and their evidence makes me thoughtful. The future is inscrutable but appalling; you must stand by me.  When I can no longer restrain and control, I will no longer lead.”

Winston Churchill, Savrola

We have all felt uncertainty at some point in our lives, whether this is related to health, economics, unemployment, or simply political outcome, among others. When it’s unclear what the future will look like, we tend to experience a lack of personal control. We feel that we can’t influence the outcome and try to compensate by engaging and supporting individuals with leadership characteristics, such as agency and control.

Dominant leaders & Prestige leaders

This need for restoring personal control has been found in the face of Dominant Leaders and in general external entities (e.g. God, Politicians/Governments, “messiah claimants”). This kind of pathway to leadership is perceived as decisive, action-oriented, and agentic, when the socioeconomic environment is perceived as uncertain; leaders are characterized as assertive, confident, controlling, and intimidating.  

On the other hand, Prestige Leaders are individuals who are admired, respected and held in high esteem by others, particularly for their skills and knowledge, while wanting to pass these on to others/supporters.

Economic uncertainty influences leadership style preference

Recent research published at the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences (PNAS) have shown that economic uncertainty influences people’s preference for a dominant leader, disfavoring a prestigious leader even after controlling for a series of other variables (e.g. demographics, personal income, participant’s ideology). Replicating these findings, it was found that a country’s unemployment was positively related to an individual’s preference for a dominant leader. The higher the unemployment the more participants reported lack of control.

The results of a preference for a dominant vs. prestigious leader have also been extended to other areas, such as the likelihood of terrorist attacks. Specifically, when participants were informed of a terrorist attack in a U.S. town, and the likelihood of a repeated attack was either certain or uncertain, the participants in uncertain conditions showed a preference for a dominant leader in the upcoming local elections.

Is a pandemic a special case for a specific type of leadership?

A pandemic is a crisis that can be characterized by high uncertainty, high risk, high complexity and low familiarity. In tough times, we need competent leaders, and different traits have been suggested to differentiate high-performing from low-performing leaders in such cases. These are:

  1. Intelligence: Leaders need to be smart, make decisions, learn from novel experiences and solve unfamiliar problems in novel situations; as experience can’t provide insight, leaders need to be open and use facts and data to do this.
  2. Empathetic: Leaders must be altruistic and be genuinely interested in others, to be caring and considerate.
  3. Humble: Leaders need to be aware of their limitations, and be willing to learn and have a real desire to understand arising problems.
  4. Ethical: Leaders need to have integrity, especially in adverse and threatening situations.

All of us are witnessing waves of different uncertainties worldwide, and research has suggested that people prefer dominant leaders as one way to restore their sense of personal control, which is a danger under uncertain situations. While this kind of leadership is preferred under uncertainty, historical examples (e.g. Donald Trump, Indira Gandhi) have shown that once these leaders are in power, they can further create more uncertainty, sometimes with detrimental consequences. Thus, the question of whether they appease people’s worries about uncertainty and lack of control still needs to be answered.

Do we need a special type of Leader with specific attributes during uncertainty? The answer is partly ‘Yes,’ but such characteristics are the ones that separate a competent leader from an incompetent leader in everyday life.

So, which leader(s) came to mind when reading about these characteristics? Did any of them have any or all of these attributes? In your opinion, how well have they coped with uncertain situations?


Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2020). PAFOW Europe Online [Video]. Retrieved 5 June 2020, PAFOW Europe Online — DAY 1, Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Kakkar, H., & Sivanathan, N. (2017). When the appeal of a dominant leader is greater than a prestige leader. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 201617711.

Kakkar, H., & Sivanathan, N. (2017). Why We Prefer Dominant Leaders in Uncertain Times. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 5 June 2020

Roberts, A. (2004). Hitler and Churchill. Secrets of Leadership. Phoenix.

About Marios

Psychology PhD student Marios is the Psychology Social Media Ambassador (Research Focus) at the University of Edinburgh.  Keep an eye on the School of PPLS Instagram account and the Psychology at Edinburgh Twitter account for updates from Marios.

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