What makes populist leaders successful?


Didier Marlier

May 12, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

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Regardless if they win (Brexit initiative, President Trump, President Duterte in The Philippines) or not (Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands), “Populists” leaders (“A person who supports or seeks to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people”, following the Oxford dictionary) are surfing on a successful wave at the moment… Prior to thinking how to be better than them, let us see what we can learn from them:

  • “Bad is stronger than Good”: In 2001, psychologists Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs, ran a thorough literature search to “review evidence pertaining to the general hypothesis that bad is stronger than good.” And they found all sorts of evidence in areas such as how we react to events (“Bad events produce more emotion, have bigger effects on adjustment measures and have longer lasting effects”), relationships (quoting Gottmann ”in order for a relationship to succeed, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones at least five to one”) etc. Bringing it back to populism and its tactics, those supporting a positive, “Good” vision of Society are on for a colossal uphill battle against those presenting it negatively, depicting “others” as Evil, not worth our trust etc. In business, this suggests that leaders who have a positive, hopeful and constructive vision of the future, or simply suggest to “roll our sleeves up to save this company” also fight an uphill battle against the negativists, defeatists, cynics and naysayers. Defeating them is feasible, as Gottmann suggests and is costly in energy.
  • Bonding vs Bridging: Linda Gratton, a London Business School fculty identified two apparently similar behaviours with devastatingly opposite effects. Bridging is about “Good”: It is about going towards the other, the unknown. It is about lowering my guard first, giving trust (and not sending signals that is has to be earned), it is about inclusion and curiosity, about why others think differently. Bridging is more risky (see the prisoners’ dilemma), takes more of an effort (as one would expect for Good vs Bad) but there is such a sense of achievement and a spectacular superior result when it works that it provides a sustainable positive feeling. Bonding “feels” good… Once common scapegoats and enemies have been identified, and we gather with like-minded people, we agree strongly against something, and soon our only plan and strategy is to defeat the enemy, without any clarity of what will be done once we are victorious. Bonding bears in itself the seeds of division, exclusion, politics and internal fighting… Because there is no strategy behind it, once the initial enemy is defeated, we need to quickly create another opponent to hate… Why do so many intelligent and competent business leaders now jump on the Diversity and Inclusion bandwagon? It is not an “effet de mode” but truly a matter of survival.
  • Humans’ decision-making system is emotional prior to being rational: Many studies show that, in spite of what we would like to think, human beings decision making system is first and fore all based on emotions, before rationale. The Baumeister et all review refers to it as well. Populist leaders know this. They avoid the terrain of rationality and logic (where they would rapidly lose the battle). They will stay on the murkier grounds of emotions and, preferably negative, “Bad” emotions since those have more chance to win over “Good” emotions. For us, business leaders, “bonding” is a cancer we need to be scrutinizing and decimating as soon as it appears. The Baumeister review also mentions a fascinating study showing that proximity creates strong dislikes. Leaving space to Bonding tactics is letting someone smoke next to a gas tank.

This is what we can learn from and about populists leaders: be aware that when bringing hope and vision, we fight an uphill battle against the negativists (Bad is stronger than Good). Watch and react rapidly against signs of your culture turning Bonding instead of Bridging. Be aware that you will difficulty win the debate by hanging on to Logos only. Humans are emotional (Jung used to say “irrational”) in their decision making processes.

But this is just playing “against” Bad, against populist types of opposition or circumstances. This is what we must do as leaders, to raise the bar and defeat them rather than defend ourselves:

  • Engage your whole organization: A leader I work for and admire very much likes to say “In my team We leave no one behind”… The parallel with the political stage is interesting. If my understanding is correct, people following the song of the populist sirens are often people who have been “forgotten by the system”. Read to this effect the excellent Op-Ed from Thomas Friedman in this week’s New-York Times. Their vote is often a protest vote. The same happens in business, with those we leave behind, those we don’t think “need to be at this meeting”… When I look some countries consistently blaming it on their poorest populations for their populist vote, I ask myself: What have we, “elite” done to educate them? The same happens in Business: What do we do to educate our “lower ranks”?
  • Take a stand: Why do populist leaders attract masses? Because they take a stand. They are not afraid to be right (rarely) or wrong (most of the time), they “go for it”, they take a stand. We may not like this, we may feel more comfortable living in the shadow of our rationale, but leaders need to take a strong, clear and principled or values based position. My grand uncle (a famed lawyer and politician) used to say: “If those disgusted by politics leave the stage, the disgusting will be grateful”. The same applies for us, Business Leaders.
  • Balance Logos (rationale), Ethos (a behaviour coherent with your words and stated values) and Pathos (emotions). Populists only play the Pathos card. They lose on Ethos and Logos. And not playing the Pathos card will not help you either. Engaging leaders know how to use those three levers of success.

When writing this, a song was playing in the background. Collie Buddz is a famous… white Reggae artists. The lyrics may be a bit tough to translate into proper English, but here is someone taking a stand: “I am blind to you haters, can’t touch me war instigators… Me say, where is Love, lately?”… Enjoy… The song is really good.


  1. Herberto M Yamamuro

    Very appropriate theme for the moment the world is passing through Didier . Crisis moments use to rise populists in public sector and in companies . They used to promise miracles and anchor in on fears or ambition of people to get better world with less exercise or efforts to overcome some challenges. Afterwards, they betray people and create ocean of destructions and sadness .

    • Didier Marlier

      Obrigado Herberto… Indeed, it seems that populist leaders know people and how to engage them better than some of us do. It was my attempt to show how they do it and provide us with means to do better than them and in an ethical and constructive manner. Thank you!

  2. Duncan Stirling

    (I didn’t see the article the week it was originally posted as I was in the jungle… or rather a national park in central Vietnam, in what remains of “jungle” these days.)
    When I read this, I think it’s time to start including and engaging the fourth lever of success for leaders. Whereas the argument that “Populists only play the Pathos card.” is correct – but there is another card that they play that is closely linked. That is Kairos.

    Kairos, the fourth of Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion, is often described as timely action right there and then. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modes_of_persuasion

    The best example I can think of is here below; Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; you can take your pick from Charlton Heston or Marlon Brando or Richard Pasco.
    Charlton Heston Mark Antony speech “Julius Caesar” (1970) https://youtu.be/0bi1PvXCbr8 via @YouTube
    Brutus Speech at Caesar’s funeral – Closed Captions https://youtu.be/op0DQ0Z65iI via @YouTube
    “Friends, Romans, countrymen” – Julius Caesar (Richard Pasco) https://youtu.be/zfmAMYYAFzs via @YouTube

    The crowd goes from cheering the death of a tyrant to being whipped up into an inflamed mob, and then the Kairos – the action of the moment – is to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” …

    I’m not advocating war or rebellion. My point is that for the populists, Pathos only goes so far… Populist Pathos works when combined with a “Kairos” – an action for the moment. In this case, these ballot box populists have the benefit of anonymity with their votes.

    An anonymous vote against Logos and Ethos is perceived to be a “victimless crime” by those so-inclined to perpetrate it. And for Pathos populists pushing for that, they know that timing is everything.

    House Of Pain It Ain’t A Crime [#11] https://youtu.be/cIUzF9VhPok via @YouTube

    Maybe we need to go back to the great Swiss tradition of voting with a show of hands. 🙂

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you dear Duncan… Remind me your typology again? INTP? 😉 I love the elegance of the reasoning and appreciate that without a call for and implementation of the action, nothing happens. But I would claim that aligning Pathos with Logos, is usually what takes people “from intention to action”.

      For your examples, I should talk to you face to face as I am not sure I understand exactly what you mean, although I trust there must be something brilliant in there…
      Thank you for having shared this!

  3. Duncan Stirling

    Speaking of Kairos, on my current wish list for reading is this book by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman. http://zengerfolkman.com/leadership-speed/

    I have yet to read it, but they tell me that they have collected a huge amount of data (from about 85,000 managers) on the interaction of Ethos and Kairos (although they don’t call it that) – leaders who produce good results through high quality and high quantity – increasing the cadence of organisations.


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