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Proof That Experience And Skills Matter More Than Charisma

The image of a charismatic CEO is romanticized, but new research proves a good leader has to earn their authority.

Proof That Experience And Skills Matter More Than Charisma
[Photo: Flickr user ♫ joyousjoym~ Blessings♥]

We often debate whether leadership is a trait you have to be born with, or if it requires real-world experience to achieve. Researchers from Stanford and Erasmus University approached the question from a different angle.

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Ask someone what they think the most common leadership qualities are, and you’ll probably hear charisma, command, or character. But Lindred Greer, a member of the research team from Stanford, maintains that although the image of a charismatic CEO is romanticized, a good leader has to earn their authority, according to a report on a new study in Insights by Stanford Business.

The results, which will be published in a forthcoming Journal of Applied Psychology article, reveal the importance of hiring and promoting leaders based on data and performance assessments rather than appointing someone simply based on their ability to command a team.

The researchers reached this conclusion after conducting a series of studies. Most notably, a field study of 49 teams with a total of 1,126 employees within a Dutch company revealed that when they were auditing finances to uncover tax evasion and fraud, the teams whose leaders had auditing skills performed better. “If the team leader didn’t have a deep, technical understanding of tax fraud, he or she led the team badly astray,” Greer said in an interview with Harvard Business Review.

Greer went on to say that while prevailing wisdom suggests “fake it ‘til you make it” is a good way to rise through the ranks, and there is scientific evidence that some leaders ascend to power purely on their personality rather than proficiency, she posits whether we are “losing sight of whether people actually have the goods.”

In another segment of the research, a study was made of how leaders were selected. Far from day-to-day business tasks, teams were asked to select from among a list of items to use after surviving a plane crash that left them stranded in the desert. Their lists are compared to the picks of a wilderness survival expert. One team was self-directed and another was asked to appoint a leader to manage the final choices and make a ruling if team members disagreed.

During a break, those groups with leaders were told how each member was doing and how the group was doing as a whole. Then they were told to get back together and rank the selections again. They were also free to put another person in charge.

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Even though they were armed with the knowledge of who was most competent and successful at this point, their choices were surprising. Greer told HBR:

This blows my mind: Only 55% of the teams chose the most expert person. Forty-five percent did not choose the most expert person, even though they knew who that was by now. Instead, they chose people who were, for example, taller, louder, or more confident.

Teams without an appointed leader didn’t fare as well as those who elected the more competent person, but better than those who chose to be led by the biggest personality. Greer contends that informal exercises over the years have yielded the same results.

That’s why she believes there are three strategies businesses should use to ensure their leadership is sound, based on the results of these latest findings.

Select for competence. Use of objective measures should trump connections, persuasiveness, or the appearance of authority.

Stick to the best information. A good leader will value others’ skills and expertise and be willing to share power when they are not best suited to make a decision.

Keep a skill scorecard. Greer suggests that a company’s challenges should be evaluated regularly to see whose skill set is most up to the task of finding solutions. “Leadership roles are better assigned once you understand who knows what, and they may need to shift in the course of the project as new issues arise,” she said.

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The risk, she underscores, only comes into play when we are “over-emphasizing generalized leadership qualities and under-emphasizing task competence.”

Related: The Four Leadership Traits That Translate to Business Success

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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