Qualities to look out for in leaders we elect to office

Here in Kenya we often lament the decision-making of our leaders
Here in Kenya, we often lament the decision-making of our leaders. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Here in Kenya, we often lament the decision-making of our leaders. Do our politicians consider our collective good when making crucial choices impacting the lives of constituents? Or do our leaders act selfishly by putting their interests above those of the citizens they serve? From pundits to bloggers to pastors, our thought pioneers often hurl degrading phrases about our leaders in a simple dichotomous two-dimensional plane of purely good versus bad actions.

However, social science provides a much more nuanced way to gaze upon the judgments of our leaders in a multidimensional view and think through the multitude of shades of grey rather than just simply obvious right or wrong.

Imagine a hypothetical situation whereby in a certain small area of the Rift Valley, botanists discover an indigenous plant with miraculous healing qualities that can cure a rare fatal autoimmune disease.

The plant can only grow within a small five-kilometre radius and attempts to replicate the plant in the laboratory failed. It only grows in one location and nature.

The extreme potential for both medical treatment and community profit become evident. Now, what if the area also happened to be the home area of the county’s governor.


How would you expect the leader for the area to act? Would the governor seek to mobilise the community to share the anticipated wealth benefit or might the governor move to monopolise the supply chain and gain the riches for himself?

Sadly, many might expect the governor to act in his selfish interests against the social benefit of the community. We commonly negatively expect our leaders to take their turn to eat spoils of office. But how would we act if we put ourselves in the governor’s shoes? Which would you choose among the following four payout choices: first, you could receive Sh50 million while others in the community get Sh100 million. Second, you receive Sh80 million and others also get Sh80 million, third you could have Sh100 million and others Sh50 million, or fourth you obtain Sh80 million and others Sh20 million. Which would you choose? First, second, third, or fourth?

Social scientists including Ryan Murphy, Kurt Ackermann, and Michel Handgraaf deem such decisions as defining someone’s social value orientation. People who make decisions that help the collective good have higher social value orientations while those who make more selfish decisions hold a lower social value orientation. We hope our leaders would act in a pro-social way.

People generally fall into five different types of social value orientations about their attitudes in distributing resources: altruistic, co-operative, equality-seeking, individualistic, and competitive.

Psychologist Eva Krockow calls altruists as people with a tendency to act selflessly by generously putting others’ needs above their own.

In comparison, co-operative types are team players who prioritise the group’s interests over their own by sacrificing some rather than most personal gains.

Equality-seeking type people are mainly motivated by fairness and prefer to divide resources equally to ensure that everybody involved receives the same.

Individualists are people who want to maximise their gains by putting their interests above anyone else’s outcomes.

Finally, competitive types receive motivation from winning rather than just gaining. Such people like doing better than others comparatively and typically share resources in a way that increases the difference between themselves and other individuals.

So, in the earlier scenario, those who chose the first options for payoffs if acting as the governor would fall into the altruistic type category.

Those selecting the second option are co-operative equity-based. Both the first and second choices are pro-social options.

Readers selecting the third option reflect individualistic attitudes while those desirous of the fourth payout option are competitive. Both the third and fourth options show pro-self preferences.

Thankfully in societies, most individuals do tend to be more co-operative types. They want to maximise their benefits but also help others maximise too. Altruistic types, sadly, are much rarer. What type of leaders do we tend to elect in Kenya?

Do we put co-operative pro-social decision-makers into an office or do we elect pro-self competitive and individualistic leaders? Let us not be fooled by bravado and confidence.

Let us earnestly look for pro-social leaders in our communities and our national politics.

Twitter: @ScottProfessor