While there are no definitive brain scans that show differences in the way leaders’ grey matter works, there is some consensus that leaders have some commonalities in how they think about the world.
From their belief systems to the way they approach challenges, leadership thinking seems rooted in analysis and improvement. Kari H. Keating, Ph.D., a teaching associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies leadership, coauthored an October 2014 study which supported existing research that leaders are made, not born. Expanding on work by leadership researcher Bruce J. Avolio which found that leadership ability is roughly 30% genetic and 70% learned, Keating and her colleagues found that the first step to becoming a more effective leader is to believe that you can be a leader in the first place.
As part of their study, which took place during a 15-week class, they taught students about various types of leadership and introduced them to new ideas about what it means to be a leader beyond the stereotypical CEO or political figure.
“We smashed down sort of the myth of what leadership is and that no one is really pre-destined or born with this capacity that it’s built. Those students who entered not feeling confident [in their leadership ability], gained a lot of confidence over the course of the semester,” she says.
Here are the ways they found that leaders think differently:
1. They look for improvement.
Leaders aren’t content to find problems and complain about them–they think in terms of solutions, says J. Randolph New, management systems professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond, where he teaches leadership courses. At the most basic level, leaders identify things that should be different and work toward making them better, New says.
2. They think about the greater good.
Keating and her colleagues also found that the progression of leadership development includes a motivation where people feel socially responsible for others. They’ll step into the leadership role, even if no one else is willing to do so. More advanced leadership thinking doesn’t consider the personal benefit of doing so. Called “non-calculative motivation,” this more developed leader doesn’t expect a reward–he or she just leads because it’s necessary.
3. They can separate fact from opinion.
Leaders have critical thinking ability and are generally able to look objectively at situations and determine the reality from wishful thinking or editorializing, New says.
“Leadership judgment relies on is that people can see we have to go forward based on our opinions about right directions and wrong directions and what will work and what won’t work and so on. So we have to operate using opinions, but I think it’s critical that we know when we’re using opinion and when it’s real fact,” he says.
4. They change their opinion as information changes.
Leaders hunger to learn and, as they do, their opinions are likely to change because they’re more concerned with looking for the best action rather than looking like the smartest person in the room, says leadership expert G. Shawn Hunter, author of Out Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. In fact, their quest for information may make them appear like better leaders to those around them.
“Even if you’re asking a lot of questions because you have doubt or ambiguity or even a lack of confidence in the direction of where you’re going, the simple act of asking open questions for which you do not know the answer of key advisors or teammates around the table will make you, in their eyes, a stronger leader,” Hunter says.
5. They distill complex scenarios into simpler terms.
Hunter says that remarkable leaders hone an ability called coup d’oeil. The French expression, which means “stroke of the eye,” or “at a glance,” means that leaders can take a vast, complicated landscape or situation and analyze it so they understand and can express it in simpler, clearer terms and develop the appropriate action to take, he says. If the company is being slammed by the competition, a true leader looks at all of the contributing factors and comes up with a plan of action.
“It’s sort of like looking through a keyhole and being able to infer an entire rich environment from that small window that you can see,” he says.