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Want to Be Seen as a Better Leader? Just Die.

- March 6, 2009


Generalissimo Francisco Franco: Still dead at last report

bq. Never speak ill of the dead, at least if they had some redeeming qualities. That’s the pattern that emerges from research that asked people to evaluate biographical summaries of hypothetical leaders. In general, leaders were viewed more favorably when they were known to be dead. This halo even helped mitigate perceptions of incompetence.

That’s the take-home message from a recent item in the Boston Globe. Intrigued, I tracked down the study that reached these conclusions (Scott T. Allison and Dafna Eylon, “The Demise of Leadership: Death Positivity Biases in Posthumous Impressions of Leaders,” in David M. Messick and Roderick M. Kramer (eds.), The Psychology of Leadership (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005). Here’s the story.

* In their first experiment, Allison and Eylon told participants about a successful entrepreneur they called “Erik Sullivan.” They described Sullivan as still living to half the participants and told the rest that he was dead. The participants who thought Sullivan was dead formed significantly more favorable impressions of him than those who thought he was still alive. This is what Allison and Eylon called the death positivity bias.

* In the next experiment, Sullivan was described to half the participants as successful and to the other half as unsuccessful; half of those in each group were told he was dead, half that he was alive. Regardless of his effectiveness or ineffectiveness as a leader, Sullivan was viewed more favorably when the participants thought he was dead.

* Next, participants were told Sullivan was either competent, incompetent, moral, or immoral, and once again half of each group was told that he was dead and half alive. The death positivity bias continued to show up on the dimension of competence; a dead leader was judged more favorably than a living one even when they both were incompetent. However, on the morality dimension things got more complicated: Dead moral leaders were judged more positively than living moral leaders, but dead immoral leaders were judged less favorably than living immoral leaders. This divergence is what Allison and Eylon called the death polarization effect.

* Finally, participants were given information about a leader, either living or dead, who underwent a change in competence or morality during his career. The results of this experiment were more complex, but the major findings were that (1) participants rated the dead leader more favorably than the living one regardless of the direction of change in competency (from competent to incompetent or from incompetent to competent); but (2) on the morality dimension impressions of the living leader were influenced by early-career actions while impressions of the dead leader were influenced by late-career actions. So what Allison and Eylon called the St. Augustine effect and the fallen angel effect emerged only in assessments of dead leaders.

Of course, experiments of this type are often criticized for being artificial, and they are artificial: among other things, they use college sophomores as stand-ins for real people and made-up leaders as representations of real ones. Allison and Eylon, though, think their experiments have real-world applicability, and in that regard they point to the case of Mel Carnahan. Remember him? He was the governor of Missouri who died in a plane crash three weeks before the senatorial election in which he was running. Opinion polls taken just before the crash showed him trailing by several points, but on Election Day Carnahan buried his opponent.