Two Versions Of The Perfect Leader Go Head To Head. Who Triumphs?

What kind of leader do people want? Moreover, what kind of leader should I be if I want to rise to the top? Research suggests two different and somewhat contradictory answers.


With all the talk of presidential candidacy in the air, it
seems like a good time to revisit an enduring question: What kind of leader do people want? Moreover, what kind of leader should I be if I want to rise to the top?  Research suggests two different and somewhat contradictory

According to one theory, people want a leader who is “one of
us.” In other words, they want
someone representative of the group
or organization to which they belong. Representative leaders draw their power from successfully conveying the
sense that they will protect the group’s core values. (This turns out to be particularly desirable in “us vs.
them” situations, when one group is competing against or is threatened by
another.)  They inspire liking,
loyalty, and a sense of connectedness. These are the leaders you “want to drink a beer with.”

Many argue, however, that what people really want is someone
exceptional, rather than
representative.  They want a bold,
charismatic visionary who wants to
take the group in a new direction. Visionary leaders don’t blend in; they stand out. They are risk-takers and
innovators. They have
strongly-held views on what the group should be doing differently. They
offer “change you can believe in,” and can be very inspiring.  


So, which kind of leader rises to the top? Do people want a leader who focuses on
who they are, or who they could be? Psychologists Nir Halevy, Yair Berson, and Adam Galinsky set
out to find the answer in a series of new studies, pitting one style of leadership
against the other to see which style is generally preferred, and why.

They found, across five studies, that people overwhelmingly
prefer visionary leaders–particularly when there is a crisis creating high
levels of stress, like a natural disaster, a recession, or looming takeover. 

Visionary leaders attracted more followers, made people feel
more strongly identified with the group, and inspired more collective
action. They also helped group
members channel their negative emotions more effectively, and enabled them to
find their work more interesting and enjoyable.


For instance, in one study, participants were able to choose
from two potential leaders to handle a crisis situation. Those who chose the visionary (but not
representative) leader reported an immediate decrease in feelings of fear and
helplessness, while those who chose the representative (but not visionary)
leader did not–in fact, they felt even worse
after making their choice. 

In another study, participants were asked to imagine that much
of their town had just been destroyed by a fire, and were then given one of two
statements from the town mayor. The statement from the representative Mayor talked about being a “proud member of the
community,” and stressed the importance of demonstrating “who we are and what
we stand for.”  The visionary Mayor wrote that he was “filled
with hope for the future, “ and assured the townspeople that “I know where we
are headed and I know that we will get there.”  

The researchers then asked participants how many hours (from
0-15) per week they thought they would volunteer in response to the mayor’s
call to action. Visionary mayors inspired nearly two more hours per week on
average than representative mayors.


In their final study, MBA students with a minimum of three
years work experience reflected on the last business unit leader they worked
under. Those who described that
leader as visionary indicated that
they were more effective, inspiring, and able to effect change than those who
had a representative boss.

[So “who we can be” trumps “who we are” when it comes to
inspiring action.  Particularly in
a time of crisis, people want visionary leaders who will offer up novel
solutions.  Of course, as the
researchers point out in the conclusion of their paper, we don’t necessarily
have to choose one form of leadership over the other. The most effective leader may well be the one who combines
aspects of both, by being representative of who the group is now, but visionary with respect to the
future–in other words, someone who is one of us, but believes we can become
much more.


To learn more about proven strategies for reaching goals and managing others, check out Heidi’s new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson. Her website is

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[Image: Flickr user koalie]