Why Leaders Fight: Where is the Line Between Action and Violence?

The idea that leaders’ actions are heavily shaped by the position of their country and the whims of its populace has long been the prevailing opinion among political psychologists. Allan Stam, dean of the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, believes this is a misguided assumption.

Stam is co-author of the forthcoming book, “Why Leaders Fight,” which argues that measurable, individual personality traits are the most accurate indicators of a political leader’s tendency toward violence and their actions during wartime.

“We went through all the psychology literature looking for formative events that were non-contestable,” he said. “Then for every chief executive from 1870 to the early 2000s, we recorded all of those indicators. That’s about 2,500 chief executives worldwide, and we used 45 different indicators.”

Together with his co-authors, Associate Professor Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan doctoral candidate Cali Mortenson Ellis, Stam came up with a list of experiences that undoubtedly had an impact on a leader’s life – for instance, growing up as an orphan, having divorced parents or taking part in active combat.

Using data from the leaders they studied, the team built an index for risk-acceptance. They then compared that index to the documented actions of leaders to see how well it predicted their military behavior. The results were fairly accurate.

 “We also were able to compare the predictive power of this index to things that political scientists have focused on for the last three generations as predictors of violence between countries – things like the balance of power, the presence or lack of institutionalized democracy, and geography,” Stam said.

Even after controlling for these factors, Stam and his fellow researchers found that the individual characteristics of leaders had a major impact on their country’s bellicosity.

Based on the formative experiences of each leader, the writers assigned them a specific risk score and could use it to measure their level of risk acceptance and tendency toward violence.

They use the measurable difference between Winston Churchill’s behavior in World War I and World War II as one of their primary examples.

As a 40-year-old First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, he was relatively young for his role as the political head of the Royal Navy. At that point in his life, Churchill had never participated in active combat, but was insistent that the British push forward with the poorly planned and ultimately disastrous invasion of Gallipoli, Turkey.

“He was humiliated and he basically exiled himself into the British military,” Stam said.

After the disaster, Churchill joined the infantry and learned the true price of combat, even suffering a few close brushes with death.

“All of these things in his early life make him convinced that the problem wasn’t that Gallipoli, for instance, wasn’t planned well enough, but that Gallipoli wasn’t audacious enough,” Stam said. “He believed that had Gallipoli succeeded in 1915, all the British casualties in 1916 and 1917 wouldn’t have had to happen.”

This brought about a noticeable shift in Churchill’s behavior and by the outbreak of World War II, he had a very aggressive personality, was very decisive and was more willing to take risks. In 1940, Churchill persuaded a majority of the British War Cabinet that it was not enough just to keep fighting a defensive war; they must fight offensively or Britain as they knew it would cease to exist. Shortly thereafter, he delivered his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech to Parliament.

“Essentially, the history of World War II as we know it is determined by Churchill in that crucial set of meetings,” Stam said. “His behavior in those meetings is in part – not entirely by any stretch of the imagination – a demonstrable part of his early life experiences that are easily observable and recognizable.”

Despite his willingness to gamble and fight, Churchill still scored much lower on the risk acceptance scale than the dictators who rose to power during the 19th and 20th centuries.

“On the autocratic or dictator side, the individuals that end up pursuing either wars of regional or global empire or genocidal domestic wars exhibited behavior that was predictable at the outset, based on our data,” Stam said.

He added that all those individuals had extremely intense formative experiences, usually things that would be considered traumatic or abusive in today’s context.

“The people that show up in the top of our risk scores are essentially the usual suspects,” he said. “The most recent ones would be Ayatollah Khomeini, Hitler, Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein. They all come up in the top 2 percent of the most risk-acceptant leaders.”

Saddam Hussein’s high-risk acceptance for example, is partly shaped by his father’s early abandonment and the violent revolutionary activity he participated in as a young man.

The researchers also identified one particular environmental factor that seemed to spur highly violent, risk-acceptant leaders to greater action. When these leaders are surrounded by other chief executives that exhibit highly risk-averse scores, they tend to rise more quickly. The period between World War I and World War II is a clear example of this.

“Mussolini, Tojo and Hitler were all very risk-acceptant individuals,” Stam said. “They emerged in a system setting where people were not likely to be willing to take big chances to deter them or contain them.”

Stam believes that current political leaders can learn from this phenomenon. Risk-averse leaders need to look closely at the behavior of their risk-acceptant counterparts. Greater study of these leaders may help predict their behavior and indicate when policies of appeasement will not work.

“[Risk-averse leaders] need to make sure that they’re not making a fundamental attribution error, that they’re not attributing their own personal risk aversion or disinhibition to the people that they’re interacting with,” he said. “That’s a mistake that’s been made in the past and can have catastrophic results.”

“Why Leaders Fight” is on sale now. Stam will speak further about the results of his research on Saturday at 10 a.m. in Alumni Hall as part of the “More Than the Score” lecture series. Those interested in attending may register for free here.


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Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications