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Confidence, leadership, and the apocalypse

Don Moore, professor, Haas School of Business | May 22, 2011

In a world full of uncertainties, it is comforting to find someone who knows the truth and the courage to speak it. That is what his followers found in Harold Camping, a Christian minister in Oakland, California. Camping preached that the Bible foretold the end of the world on May 21st, 2011. The compelling certainty in Camping’s message drove followers to dedicate themselves to his cause, giving up their jobs, spending their days warning others of the coming apocalypse, and donating all their money to help fund the massive publicity campaign coordinated by Camping’s Family Radio network to spread the word.

Camping’s message is, in a twisted sense, a spectacularly successful act of leadership. Few among our business or political leaders can inspire that kind of devotion from anyone. Camping’s success arises in part from what my research suggests is one key element of successful leaders: confidence. To inspire others, leaders must be able to claim that they know what they’re doing. They must plot a path for others to follow, and be able to articulate the glorious rewards that will come to those who stay the course.

My research with Haas colleagues Cameron Anderson and Jessica Kennedy suggests that those who are the most certain of themselves are most likely to attain positions of status in their groups. It is not necessary that they be correct, just that they be confident enough to claim they know what they are doing and for other group members to believe them. Our research suggests further that group status hierarchies, once established, are fairly resistant to change. Will Harold Camping remain as the head of his Family Radio network? It’s a good bet.

Is quite rare that leaders make the kind of bold and easily falsifiable claim that Camping made. Politicians studiously avoid such claims, and it should be obvious why they do. As countless jokes told on May 22nd attest, Camping lost a great deal of credibility. One would think that his followers whose lives have been undone by their fealty to him would the first to reject his leadership, but history suggests otherwise. Camping’s doomsday prophesy was not the first, and not the first to inspire followers to give up their jobs, money, and worldly goods. When the apocalypse fails to arrive as promised, many of the faithful report that their faith abides.

Indeed, May 21st, 2011 was not Camping’s first doomsday prophesy. He predicted the end of the world before, most recently in 1994. And in the wake of that embarrassment, he was nevertheless able to assemble an army of adherents whose savings funded a multi-million dollar publicity campaign to spread the word. Those who prefer to follow leaders who display certainty run the great risk of pledging themselves to demagogues, crazies, and liars. And while we may be tempted to shake our heads in pity at them, we would do well to offer ourselves the same sympathies. After all, most of us find confidence in potential leaders compelling and inspiring. The alternative, which all of us would do well to consider, is to select leaders who are accurate. Yes, confidence is nice, but better still is to select as leaders those who actually know the truth. And that requires that we grow more comfortable with the inherent uncertainty in predicting the future, especially when it comes to the apocalypse.

Comments to “Confidence, leadership, and the apocalypse

  1. The alternative is not to find leaders who know the truth, but not to have leaders at all. Faith is wrong.

  2. As a new Christian, I listened and adhered to many of Mr. Campings beliefs back in the 70’s and 80’s. What saved me from making the mistakes many of his followers have made is the questioning, seeking mind I was blessed with. I will have to say that it messed with my head and I sort of underwent a little bit of a deprogramming until 1994 and the failed prophecy, when beyond a shadow of a doubt I knew he was a false teacher. But it took time to come out of it. I’m afraid many of his followers will continue to believe him, and he probably won’t come out of his self deception. At root is his unsound method of bible interpretation through which he allegorizes wherever he wants to fit his “box”, and… his sheer arrogance. He is incorrigible , unteachable, and at his age apart from the grace of God will not change. His is a cult that will only wax worse and worse if there is no correction, and will depart more and more from sound biblical theology. The greatest tragedy has been that he seems bereft of Jesus’ love in his ministry to his callers and followers and thus far seems unremorseful. He is no doubt sincere, but mentally unsound. Believing lies will do that.

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