The rise of populism survival of the fittest

The rise of populism survival of the fittest

Many are still staggered by the fact that Britons chose to leave the EU. And why was Donald Trump elected as the 45th president of the United States? The endorsements of the elite, and celebrities like Richard Branson, appear to have had no significant effect on the crowd.

As the author of the upcoming book First-Class Leadership, I looked to leadership psychology to understand the reasons behind this. If you influence others to do what you want, you are a leader. John Maxwell also said, “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” The populist leaders such as Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen know how to exert influence. In this article, I focus on several leadership aspects which populist leaders exploit effectively.

Effective communication

Effective communication may be the most important qualification criterion an effective leader should meet. Populists communicate more simply using tangible topics, which address the daily needs and issues ordinary people struggle with. They maximise the use of social media and IT giants, such as Facebook and Google, to connect with their audience. And when you are connected, you exert more influence. Populists tell their target population exactly what they want to hear.

Focusing on what is not working

Populists exploit subjects which are important to their target population, such as jobs, effects of globalisation, and national security. Current leaders, however, seem to be unable to provide understandable answers to counter the populists’ claims. For example, the UK Remain Campaign failed miserably when it came to selling the reasons why Britain should remain in the EU.

Light legacy

As a political leader with history, you make both friends and enemies. Media exposure during the elections is one of the easiest ways to ruin the life of a political leader. All you need to do is publish a damaging rumour which is at least partially true. Follow this with another rumour, which again has an element of truth. The negative publicity generated leads the crowd to start believing there is something wrong with this leader. Take Hillary Clinton and the news about her emails as an example. Unlike well-known leaders with their accompanying history, populists are not burdened by a significant legacy. They do not have as many enemies either. This gives populists the advantage of being able to focus on their own agenda, while the leaders with legacy also need to defend and restore their image.

Focusing on now

Populists cleverly address the most obvious pains the crowd suffers. They focus on the lower tiers of the human needs’ hierarchy as Abraham Maslow addressed in 1943-1954 (physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, self-actualisation and self-transcendence). Focusing on the basic needs (i.e. food, safety, and jobs) pays off when memories of an economic crisis are still fresh. Focusing on the upper tiers of human needs – the focus point of the political elite – works best when most of the target population is unconcerned with basic needs.

Strategically chosen target population

When designing their election campaign, populists home in on the biggest and easiest to manipulate portion of the population. Most Western countries, particularly in Europe, are aging. A percentage of the aging generation is not as skilled as the younger one. They have worked for 30 plus years doing almost the same thing and have limited options. This – eligible to vote – group is worried about their jobs, pensions and (health)insurance. They feel neither heard nor understood by the political elite. Therefore, they tend to be attracted to the populists who say what the aging population wants to hear about job security, halting immigration, and increasing national security.  In June 2016, a majority of Britons aged over 45 voted to leave the EU, rising to 60% of those aged 65 or over. The political elite appear to be disconnected from the aging generation.

Overestimate: a huge mistake for a leader to make

In February 2016, David Cameron, former prime minster of the UK, called for a referendum (which took place on 23 June 2016) about whether Britain should remain in the EU. Brexit was the result. Matteo Renzi, who recently stepped down as Italian prime minister, personalised the constitutional referendum (which took place on 4 December 2016) in Italy by threating to resign if the public voted ‘No’. The majority voted ‘No’. Most recently President Obama personalised his support for Hillary Clinton. He lost too. While the elite overestimate their position in society, populists underestimate themselves; the risks of which are often less than overestimation.

Influence by fear

Leading by fear is what populists do well. By focusing on matters such as immigration and globalisation they instil fear: of becoming jobless and feeling unsafe in your own home. Surprisingly, populists often have no sound plans about how they would fix issues. Astonishingly, nor do the crowd ask for these. They just like what they hear. It was clear right after the referendum that Brexiteers had no idea how to proceed. Donald Trump created a lot of fear. Moreover, he did not offer any concrete plans for how he would actualise his ideas. The elite has failed to manage the fear created by populists both in the UK and the US.

Speaking like the crowd

Unlike the political elite who tend to dress, behave and talk intelligently, populist leaders behave and talk like ordinary people. The psychological impact of this is evident as shown by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Your prospects are more likely to comply with your request if you speak their language. Instead of relying on intelligence and political correctness, populists choose to talk in simple, bold, unfiltered and easy to understand terms, which is language that speaks to the majority.


The populists are warming up to win the battlefield in the Netherlands, France and Germany in 2017. If the elite leaders remain disconnected from the aging crowd, we will surely see a continued rise in populism, an undesirable chapter in modern democracy. It is the survival of the fittest.

About the author

Hamid Safaei is the author of the upcoming book First Class leadership. He is the founder of ImOcean Academy. Hamid is a qualified executive coach helping executives and budding entrepreneurs make breakthroughs. He has led successful business transformations for a number of Fortune Global 500 companies.