Frank Underwood, the treacherous main character of the Netflix series House of Cards, uses a combination of deceit, manipulation, and even violence to transform himself from a U.S. senator to contender for the White House. In each episode Underwood makes asides to the camera, summarizing his strategy for gaining power. In one episode he tells us: “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”
Underwood’s philosophy towards gaining power is an old one, tracing at least back to the time of Niccolo Machiavelli, who warned that kindness only leads to weakness. In the modern era, some research suggests that people with narcissistic and tendencies are more likely to rise to the top of organizations. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are effective leaders. When it comes to political power, how does virtue relate to success?
Leanne ten Brinke at the University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues attempted to answer this question by investigating the relationship between the moral character of U.S. senators and their political influence. Using publicly available C-SPAN videos, the researchers selected 502 videos of all 151 U.S. senators who held office from January 1989 to December 1998. The senators were about equally split between Republicans and Democrats and the majority of them were men. The researchers randomly selected one video from each senator per Congress and had a group of trained coders view the first minute of each video.
Past research has shown that viewing video clips as short as thirty seconds can provide enough information to accurately judge someone’s basic personality. Known as “thin-slicing” this technique has shown, for example, that untrained observers can correctly identify individuals who have personality disorders. The coders were asked to make inferences about each senator’s personality and other characteristics using only one minute of video footage. Using only the first minute gave the study consistency since each speech began the exact same way: with the senator making a formal request that the speech be entered into the Congressional Record and then a description of the bill or issue that they would be discussing.
For the coding of the videos, the researchers came up with a set of traits and behaviors thought to be associated with either virtue or vice. For example, virtuous senators might be expected to display traits such as modesty, gratitude, and kindness. These traits would manifest themselves through positive facial expressions, remarks about solutions and compromise, and a less flashy style of dress. In contrast, senators displaying vice might show a lack of emotional expression, an overly expansive posture, coy looks, or the frequent use of “I” and other first-person pronouns. In this way, both verbal and nonverbal cues were coded in order to rate the extent to which each senator displayed virtuous or Machiavellian behaviors.
To measure the political influence of each senator, the researchers looked at how successful each senator was at obtaining cosponsorship from colleagues on bills that the senator had created. Since the ability to obtain cosponsors was found in the study to be highly correlated with the number of bills that a senator successfully passed into law, cosponsorship provided an indirect way of measuring political influence. Using cosponsorship as the outcome revealed that senators who displayed more virtuous behaviors were more likely to wield greater political influence. In terms of behaviors that suggest vice, there seemed to be little influence between displaying them and political influence with one exception: senators displaying psychopathic behaviors were less likely to obtain cosponsorship.
Although the study strongly suggests a link between virtue and political influence, it has some important limitations. We can’t be sure of how virtuous the senators actually were given the indirect way that virtue was measured. Similarly, political influence was measured using the proxy of cosponsorship, and we can’t be sure about the senators’ actual level of political influence. Finally, the study was about members of a specific legislative body, and it’s not clear whether the results would generalize to other contexts or types of leadership positions.
Despite these limitations, the study provides some scientific evidence that Machiavellian politicians may lose in effectiveness. This has implications for the kinds of characteristics that voters should pay attention to when selecting between candidates. Politicians who fail to care about others may also fail to win the respect and approval of their colleagues. For better or for worse, the U.S. political system depends on collaboration – a reality that often makes it seem slow and ineffective but also provides balance and protection against someone with too forceful a will.
If virtuous leaders seem few and far between, there may be a good reason for it. Research has shown that virtuous people who have a strong sense of responsibility are less likely to actively pursue leadership roles. However, when they do assume positions of power, they end up making excellent leaders who are admired by others. Research also suggests that leaders who demonstrate greater integrity may be rewarded with more loyal and harder working employees.
Given this, we may do well to encourage the more virtuous among us to step up as leaders. The next time you have an opportunity to help select someone to lead, it may be worth the effort to actively encourage someone you see as virtuous. It just might make your organization more effective, as well as a more pleasant place to be.