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  • 5 minute Read

What You Think Makes A Good Leader Probably Doesn’t

We think we know what makes a good leader, but psychologists have shown we’re often wrong.

What You Think Makes A Good Leader Probably Doesn’t
[Photo: Shutterstock]

What does it take to be a good leader? One reason that’s such a perennial question is because it’s so hard to answer. Many of our opinions about leadership are based on subjective experiences rather than the full breadth of psychological research in the field. We may think we know what qualities we value in those who lead us–and why–but companies and entire countries keep pushing less than stellar leaders into positions of power. How come?

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What Actually Makes A Good Leader

To answer that question, it helps to get back to basics and ask why we as humans look for leaders in the first place. Mostly, it’s because we need someone to help us get ahead, get along, and find meaning. Human beings are inherently social, but coordinated group behavior is unlikely to occur unless someone’s in charge. While few of us can achieve very much without working together, doing so doesn’t come naturally, and that’s where leaders come in. They help balance the tension between individual agendas–our self-serving desire to get ahead–with the need for others’ approval and cooperation–our need simply to get along.

Leaders also fulfill our intellectual thirst for meaning and purpose. We need to understand the “why” of things, and we seldom feel satisfied unless our behaviors and choices (particularly involving our careers) make sense. Leaders can offer a sense of direction that corresponds with our inner moral compasses.

Finally, in any team–from professional athletics to the military and business–leaders are tasked with making key decisions. To the degree that leaders are more competent than their individual team members when it comes to decision-making, teams are generally glad to outsource that function. In that sense, then, leadership is a resource for the wider group.

What Good Leaders Have In Common

So it’s no surprise that good leaders share similar psychological characteristics. They’re competent and have good judgment, integrity, vision. They’re also highly self-aware, which helps them understand how others see them and improve based on feedback, especially from their subordinates.

This all might seem obvious, yet over and over again, leadership choices, whether through democratic elections or autocratic decisions, are driven by the wrong factors. For instance, although there are no sex differences in leadership effectiveness, people virtually everywhere in the world perceive men as more leader-like than women.

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That baseless bias is our own loss. As a result, we’re left with an unjustifiable overrepresentation of men in leadership positions–which helps explain the surplus of incompetent male leaders. There are plenty of other leadership decoys to go around: Age, attractiveness, and race are all predictive of people’s leadership preferences, even though they have nothing to do with leaders’ actual effectiveness.

Taking Risks With Risk-Takers And Narcissists

Another problem is the popular notion that leaders must be risk-takers. As a matter of fact, the best leaders in any field tend to be prudent and conscientious. They aren’t impulsive and are remarkably capable of self-control, even when temptations are high. And those qualities are actually enhanced by the fact that good leaders tend to have . Intelligence helps people build and maintain high-performing teams because it enables people to learn faster, better, and more (as long as they’re interested in what they’re learning).

But the mismatch between what people actually value in leaders and what they should value is arguably the greatest when it comes to altruism versus narcissism. In what’s probably the best quantitative study of this dimension, the psychologist Tim Judge found that disagreeable people–those who are more likely to be self-centered, confrontational, and antisocial–have a higher probability of becoming leaders. More agreeable people–who are empathetic, altruistic, and sociable–tend to make better leaders, but are less frequently chosen to lead.

This implies that some of the qualities linked to leadership effectiveness are negatively related to leadership emergence. In other words, mean people rise to the top, even though kinder people are actually needed there. Getting decision-makers to understand the distinction between emergence and effectiveness could very well increase the share of competent leaders out in the real world. But our criteria and the rules of the game would need to change first.

What We Can Do To Get Better Leaders

At the very least, organizations should ensure they select leaders with good people skills. A number of studies have shown that a leader’s interpersonal skills are an important predictor of team engagement. That finding is consistent with other research pointing to the importance of emotional intelligence for leadership. Too often, people are promoted to leadership positions simply on the basis of their technical competence and expertise, even when they lack the “soft skills” to build good relationships with subordinates and boost team morale–especially in difficult times.

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There’s also the assumption that leadership talent is closely related to charisma. One comprehensive analysis of perceptions of leadership across 62 countries found that people tend to prefer charismatic leaders. Consider the personalities of most political dictators (and many famous CEOs), and that finding isn’t so surprising. Charisma can be a poor yet compelling stand-in for leadership ability. In fact, that quality is often associated with narcissism, a trait that researchers defined as “encompassing grandiosity, arrogance, self-absorption, entitlement, fragile self-esteem, and hostility,” and found disproportionately among leaders.

A Leader For Every Season

Finally, some of the things we look for in leaders tend to vary by culture and circumstance. For example, some research indicates we prefer leaders who seem to resemble us (especially in terms of personality). In that sense, the notion that every country has the leader it deserves is fairly accurate.

And the similar idea that every era has the leader it deserves? Same thing. When times are tough, and people’s self-esteem is down, strong, autocratic leaders are likelier to emerge. In other words, while we look for similarities in our leaders when it comes to certain attributes, we sometimes choose leaders who we think fulfill a deficit. A leader’s abrasiveness is likely to reflect his or her followers’ sense of weakness and self-doubt. And in those cases, many of the prejudices we’ve already covered tend to come into play. That’s why masculine-seeming leaders tend to emerge during periods of conflict, while leaders with attributes perceived to be more feminine arise during periods of peace and cooperation.

But if we paid closer attention to the science, we’d be more likely to choose the leaders who are actually right for what we need them to accomplish–not those who we think will be.

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