Everyone Loves a Dead Leader

staying-powerIf you are a leader, and still alive, here’s what you need to know:  you still have time to change peoples’ impression of you.  A final, public verdict won’t be rendered until you pass into that good night.  That’s according to a forthcoming study in Leadership Quarterly, conducted by Scott Allison, professor of psychology at the University of Richmond.

The study suggests that, in general, leaders are viewed more favorably when they are known to be dead. Surprisingly, this effect even held true when the leader was viewed as incompetent while alive (you listening George W?). 

But if a leader acted immorally while alive and didn’t turn things around before the big goodbye, the posthumous public attitude was especially severe. 

Celebrities were also studied and apparently receive comparable treatment. Media coverage of Princess Diana, for example, was much more favorable for several years after her death than several years before.  Same for JFK.  The sole notable exception to that rule: Richard Nixon.

This seems like a variation of the “halo effect” with the additional dynamic of death being the final arbiter of opinion. For example, Jimmy Carter’s missteps as President led many to believe that he was enormously incompetent, but most people still considered him to be a decent guy.  If he had died soon after leaving office, that would have been the final public verdict — incompetent, but a nice guy.  But in the years since being President, he has shown remarkable competence and resolve with successful projects like Habitat for Humanity, so presumably if he died today the final verdict would be much more positive.

What I wonder, though, is how much time factors into this.  Carter would benefit from being out of office for 30 years, plenty of time to rebuild his persona.  What about Bill Clinton?  He was accused of “immoral acts” while President, but was (is) also revered for his intelligence and competence.  If he died today, which image would win out? 

I suspect that the remembrance effect increases with time, in either direction. Lincoln died on an upnote, and it’s gone up and up ever since, flirting at times with deity status. Nixon went down in immoral flames and died, though many years later, with that as his defining mark, one likely to stick with his name for perpetuity.

hat tip: Boston Globe

Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Beggan, J.K., & Bachelder, J. (2009). The demise of leadership: Positivity and negativity in evaluations of dead leaders. The Leadership Quarterly


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