Emory University, Goizueta Business School

Emory University, Goizueta Business School Emory University, Goizueta Business School

1300 Clifton Road, Atlanta, 30322, GA, US

Understanding self-serving behavior in leaders

 Understanding self-serving behavior in leaders 2018-07-24
Connect with an Expert
Melissa Williams

In a new research paper, Melissa Williams, assistant professor of organization & management, developed a framework to better understand when and why leaders use their power for personal gain. She discovered that a variety of traits, characteristics, and values, such as feeling less of a sense of guilt, made leaders more likely to exhibit self-interested behaviors. Individuals who were more narcissistic, less humble and honest, and generally less agreeable also had an increased chance of abusing their power. Leaders with an individualistic and competitive streak as well as those with a lower sense of morality were also more likely to act on self-interest. Threats to power especially increased self-serving behavior for those with a propensity for it. Williams added that “because positions of leadership are desirable and hedonically pleasurable, leaders facing threats to their power will prioritize self-interested actions that secure their own power over behaviors that serve shared goals.” Interestingly, for the individuals who did not have self-interested traits and values, power actually decreased the likelihood that they would become self-interested.


Serving the Self From the Seat of Power:Goals and Threats Predict Leaders’ Self-Interested Behavior

Why do some leaders use their position to amass personal prestige and resources, and others to benefit the team, the organization, or society? This article synthesizes new, cross-disciplinary research showing that self-serving leader behavior is predictable based on the function and nature of power—an essential component of leadership.