Why Good People Like Bad Leaders

todayMarch 15, 2024

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By: W. Nick Taliaferro


Nick Taliaferro is a veteran Radio Personality, Minister, and the former Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. He is also a Contributing Editor of Message Magazine.


When you hear the word “attractive”, you think of someone (or thing) that has beauty, or that has some compelling attribute. An attractive flower, or a good-looking woman or man – perhaps an actress or athlete come to mind.


So why are we drawn to criminals? What is it about bad people that we find compelling?


Before you dismiss my question, think about some of the names that reverberate through the corridors of time… Al Capone, Jesse James, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde – criminals, all! We even invent fictional bad actors that people secretly root for – Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan (the serial killer), Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell. Why are we drawn to these bad doers?


I grew up in a poor Black neighborhood where bad guys were popular. We admired them – that is, of course, when we weren’t being terrified by them. Some of them were my friends, and many of them are now dead (for better or worse) because of the activities that characterized their lives. They weren’t pure evil, you could enjoy a lunch with them; but the fact is that they didn’t do any real good – at least not enough to be admired – and some of them were flat-out sociopaths.


So, why were we drawn to them?


Psychologists have a field day working with this question, especially when it concerns bad people who become elevated to positions of power by supposedly decent people (…think, Hitler, Stalin, etc). Why do “good” people, who presumably want to see good things happen, empower bad people by making them leaders?


One theorem advanced by sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., is that “we’re attracted to qualities in others that we ourselves wish we had”. In short, we are drawn to people who have traits that we perceive ourselves to be lacking – and that we wish we possessed.


Chew on that for a moment… people are drawn to individuals who have traits, or skills and abilities, that they feel that they lack – and therefore, need.


If this premise is true, it stands to reason that people who perceive themselves to be lacking in power, or who are lacking in confidence about themselves, these people would be drawn to individuals who exhibit an abundance of power and swagger. Worse still, folks who might view themselves as lacking in justice – and therefore victims of unfair treatment – may tend to look for someone who is vengeful, and able make things right for them.


I see how that worked in my poor Black neighborhood. We didn’t have power, and the gangsters seemed to have it by the buckets. We lacked resources, but the bad guys drove Cadillacs and wore gold and diamonds. In a twisted way, they had what we thought we didn’t have… and that we thought we needed. And we rooted for them – as long as they weren’t hurting us, that is.


That brings me to our contemporary circumstances. Many people in America, especially those who once enjoyed unquestioned privilege and entitlement, are now deeply concerned about their lives and future. They are being told that “others” are beginning to outnumber them, and they feel threatened by that. All around the world the legend of American Exceptionalism is being eclipsed by the achievements of other nations and cultures, and by their technical advances, too (China comes to mind here).


Accordingly, a lot of Americans feel lacking in power, and their confidence is fading.


But even more frightening is the notion that some Americans have that they have been unfairly treated; that their “kindnesses” have been exploited, thereby allowing others to take advantage of them. Many of these people believe that America saved the planet from two World Wars, and then opened its doors to the tired and poor huddled masses, yearning to be free. And now in return, America has become the brunt of criticism, and the target of terrorists and foreign provocateurs!


These people see America as a victim of unjust, unfair and despicable treatment. For these people, America stands in need of an avenger!


For people who think that way, a person who struts about looking cocky and self-assured would be perceived as very attractive. And if this person were to project an indomitable persona, while also talking about how much power they possess – and how willing they are to use it – they would become instant catnip! 


The cherry on top would be if this person also was perceived to have the power to make things right – and by that I mean, they could undo past injustices, and reset things so that situations could be put back to where things were great again… many would be willing to crown that person with many crowns!


Think about it; do you know a personality who fits that description? I’m asking for a friend.



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Written by: Kiara Santos

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