Friday, November 02, 2012

Aśoka: guilt and leadership?

I heard a report on the BBC World Service a couple of days ago of a recent publication by Rebecca Schaumberg et al. in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  It seems that individuals who feel guilt strongly make better leaders, showing significantly more consideration for the welfare of the people they manage. The citation and abstract are below.

It struck me that this fitted the case of King Aśoka pretty well.  Two personal features are particularly prominent in his inscriptions: his guilt following the war in Kalinga, and his paternal concern for the welfare of his subjects.


Citation and Abstract

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown: The link between guilt proneness and leadership.
Schaumberg, Rebecca L.; Flynn, Francis J.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 103(2), Aug 2012, 327-342. doi: 10.1037/a0028127

  1. We propose that guilt proneness is a critical characteristic of leaders and find support for this hypothesis across 3 studies. Participants in the first study rated a set of guilt-prone behaviors as more indicative of leadership potential than a set of less guilt-prone behaviors. In a follow-up study, guilt-prone participants in a leaderless group task engaged in more leadership behaviors than did less guilt-prone participants. In a third, and final, study, we move to the field and analyze 360° feedback from a group of young managers working in a range of industries. The results indicate that highly guilt-prone individuals were rated as more capable leaders than less guilt-prone individuals and that a sense of responsibility for others underlies the positive relationship between guilt proneness and leadership evaluations. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
A summary of the research is available on the Stanford Business School website.


  1. Whenever I read this sort of articles, connecting X with the desirable outcome Y (and I frequently read them), I find myself asking questions such as "Is not it the case that X is just by chance connected to Y?" It is always easy to detect connections (positive or negative) between sets, since we are rational animals and tend to make sense of all sets we are confronted with. Thus, I am sure that it would be possible to show a connection between any personality trait and any other.
    More in detail, as for the present case, I wonder whether leadership and ability to perceive guilt are not connected since they are both traits of people who tend to see themselves as free agents (and are, hence, planners and responsible people). Thus, X and Y depend on Z rather than Y depends on X.

  2. But these researchers design their tests specifically to eliminate as many such variables as possible. Anvaya-vyatirekena. E.g., guilty but leaderless groups, etc.

  3. I could not access the whole article (which is unfortunately not open access), but judging from the summary you mention, I am not sure the researchers did their best to avoid further variables. After all, the test has been implemented exactly because the chief researcher suspected a correlation between guilt and leadership. Plus, there is no mention of having included in the few tested people, e.g., guilt-prone people who are not planners or do not see themselves as free agents.