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K. Kris Hirst

Bad Leadership in Harsh Climates

By October 8, 2010

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As an archaeologist, I read a little sociology. Sociologists study people, like archaeologists do; and they rely on statistics, like we do; but, unlike us, sociologists have informants they can interview. (Hello, potsherd!)

Potsherd from Kaibab National Forest
Potsherd from Kaibab National Forest refuses to respond to nosy questions from the archaeologist. Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest

So, when I recently ran across a sociological study of how harsh climates affect the frequency of bad leaders in relatively wealthy countries, I was intrigued. The article "Winters, Summers, and Destructive Leadership Cultures in Rich Regions", published this month in Cross-Cultural Research, describes the results of a test of what sociologists are calling Climato-EnvironmentalEconomic Theory of Culture. That's sort of the flip side of Cultural Ecology, which considers how human cultures adapt to their environments. The Climato-Economic Theory of Culture predicts that harsh environments impact how human societies operate.

Evert Van de Vliert and colleagues are interested in destructive leadership: that is, persistent behavior by a superior that undermines or sabotages the interests of subordinates and/or the interests of the company. They interviewed a bunch of employees about their bosses in more than 300 communities in Norway, and then correlated employee responses to the harshness of local climate, and the relative amount of collective wealth in their communities.

Van de Vliert and colleagues discovered that when the climate is harsh, and the community in general doesn't have adequate money to deal with the demands of living in a harsh environment, bad leaders are relatively rare. And when the climate is harsh, but there is lots of money in the community, again, there are few bad leaders. But, when the climate is harsh, and just about everybody in the community has just enough money to deal with the demands, that's when you find the highest frequency of destructive leadership.

So, when things in a community are going along well but not terrifically well, that's when bad leaders happen. Constructive leadership happens most frequently in crisis situations, or in situations when there is a surplus of cash. Isn't that interesting?

Read the Article

Van de Vliert E, Matthiesen SB, Gangs°y R, Landro AB, and Einarsen S. 2010. Winters, Summers, and Destructive Leadership Cultures in Rich Regions. Cross-Cultural Research 44(4):315-340.


October 8, 2010 at 12:11 pm
(1) rachaelogy says:

yes its interesting BUT what has it to do with pot shards ??

October 9, 2010 at 9:33 am
(2) K. Kris Hirst says:

It’s a visual joke–the archaeologist holding the sherd is supposed to be trying to interview it. But, I’ll admit it’s a pretty lame one!


October 11, 2010 at 11:43 am
(3) Russ says:

In a harsh desert climate, people doing relatively well but not “on easy street”, such as the Fremont people, may have succumbed to bad leadership? Only their potshards know for sure.

October 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm
(4) trublu says:

Hi Kris – never mind : I thought it was funny enough to laugh out loud to my husband’s amazement. He thought I was reading serious archaeological stuff….

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