Ask Anything You Want of Me, Except Time: Leadership and Temporal Distortion

imagesjfk clockAll political leaders fight against time. Whether their temporal limitations are institutional, due to term limits, or political, with the need to win elections, leaders always have one eye on the clock. As we discuss in our LCI, the passing of time is almost always bad for a leader’s ability to ‘get things done’. The downward pressure on a leader’s ‘capital’ grows with time, with the (almost) inevitable loss of popularity, increasing criticism and the onward march of events, crises, scandals and defeats.

Despite the importance of time to leadership, we know little about how it is perceived or used by those in power: how do the powerful themselves define and view time? Here two interesting pieces of experimental psychology point in rather different directions-see this brief overview.

On the one hand, leaders have a rather different and improved conception of time. This study by Alice Moon and Serena Chen, claims that they feel ‘subjectively’ that they ‘have more time’ and build a certain, more time generous view of the world-one of the approaches that gets them to the top in the first place. Moreover, in dealing with time they generally use less energy and be less stressed.

So far, so good. However, this psychological study by Mario Weick and Ana Guinote, again of the ‘powerful’, indicates that leaders also ‘underestimate amount of time taken to achieve a task’. Being in power ‘consistently led to more optimistic and less accurate time predictions’ and so ‘power does not always have beneficial effects; it can be detrimental for planning and lead to greater errors in forecasts’.

So what does this mean for political leaders? It means that they can cope better with the stressful pace of high level politics by ‘buying time’ and through some elaborate ‘temporal distortion’. Yet this distortion also leads to greater mistakes and optimism. Time is relative but also subjective and nuanced.

The two studies point to a wider issue of political leadership-the often double-edged nature of many attributes and factors. The skills or abilities that get a leader to the top job may become a liability or contain ‘hidden’ negatives. Great oratory may wear off over time or be seen as ‘promising too much’ while ‘not delivering’. Pragmatism can become lack of vision and wise delegation laziness. And time may give you the thinking space you need but the overconfidence you don’t.


Moon, A. & Chen, S. (2010) The Power to Control Time: Power Influences How Much Time (You Think) You Have, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.04.011

Weick, Mario and Guinote, Ana (2010) How long will it take? Power biases time predictions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (4). pp. 595-604. ISSN 0022-1031.

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