The field of behavioural economics studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals.

It affects many areas of our lives and we can learn a lot from findings in this field that could help us to become better leaders.

According to new research from the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT, known unofficially as the Nudge Unit) and Ipsos Mori (a research company based in the UK), we consistently overestimate how badly other people behave.

For example, we underestimate the amount of tax people pay and how much exercise they do, while we overestimate the amount of sugar they are eating.

This is significant, because an individual’s behaviour is strongly influenced by what they think others are doing.

‘If we think others are cheating, not saving enough, or not eating healthily, then we’re much more inclined to do the same ourselves,’ says David Halpern, the Nudge Unit’s chief executive.

The Nudge Unit has used this insight to persuade more people to pay their tax.

By telling people in reminder letters that their neighbours had paid their tax on time, his team saw a 15% rise in payments. This tweak has the potential to help the government collect an additional £30 million a year.

So if you want to encourage your customers to pay on time, or your employees to act in a certain way, it may help to highlight the existing good behaviour of their peers.

This got me thinking about leadership.

Far too often we look at poor leaders and poor leadership, and then it becomes easier to justify behaving this way ourselves.

Society today is very self-promoting. All around us are examples of leaders who have become accustomed to self-serving purposes. This influences other leaders to view this as the norm and behave in a similar fashion.

It’s not long before we start to believe that others are put on our path to serve our needs.

How do we change this? One way would be to start highlighting to people how true leaders behave. Stop focusing on poor leadership. Start talking about, sharing news of, and otherwise supporting and promoting leadership that is not self-serving, but that serves others.

Take, for example, the words of Nelson Mandela, who lived a life of service and offered hope and inspiration to a nation.

He once said, ‘Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.’

Let’s remind ourselves of great leaders and highlight their priorities and actions to motivate ourselves, and all future leaders, to follow the high standards they set.


Nelson Mandela once said, ‘A real leader uses every issue, no matter how serious and sensitive, to ensure that at the end of the debate we should emerge stronger and more united than ever before.’ This is the example of leadership we need to model to our children, businesses and country. Practise patience and a deep, sincere respect for others to help you give everyone a chance to speak and be heard. Though opinions may differ, at the end of the day, building one another up and working together in unity is crucial to making an impact and true progress.

Author:  Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of  Discovery Health