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The Journal-ist: In the Lead

From this month's academic journals, four views on what makes a top-notch 21st-century leader: curiosity, charisma, neuroscience, and Ivy League thinking.

The Journal-ist: In the Lead
Steve Parsons
Steve Parsons

>> Want to be a great leader? Michael Harvey, writing in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, identifies curiosity as a trait that "stimulates learning and, concurrently, increases the effectiveness of decision making and quality management in the global marketplace." Curious leaders excel at problem solving by intuitively filling gaps "between what one knows and what one wishes to know," and they're so important that Harvey suggests corporations administer curiosity exams: "Individuals should be tested on a regular basis."

>> Every day, every meeting, is a test of charisma, another trait that, according to Boas Shamir, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, companies should seek in a leader. But it's not just charisma that matters—it's also the perception of charisma. To boost perceptions, you have to get your audience highly aroused. (Mind out of the gutter: To psychologists, arousal means the level of audience interest and engagement.) High arousal leads to "an amplification of ... charismatic appeal." That is, you'll seem even more charismatic than you already are and better able to sustain others' excitement and loyalty.

>> Here's a little help for managers—from the lab. According to David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz in Reclaiming Children and Youth, business leaders should deepen their understanding of the brain's physiology to better manage their staff. Scientists now know that human brains are wired "to register change as threat, and thus they often cling to old habits." But companies can use "attention density"—the "amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience"—to shift worker mind-sets. For instance, at Springfield ReManufacturing, a Missouri engine maker, discussion of cost-cutting—threatening in some workplaces—is so routine that "people systematically talk about the means for making things better, training their brains to make new connections."

>> Lastly, there's always problem solving Harvard-style. The "adaptive" approach, as Stephen Bouwhuis calls it in The Australian Journal of Public Administration, is being taught at Harvard's Kennedy School and is useful for problems that require "a shift ... in ways of thinking across a community." Climate change is an example. A visionary puts forth a plan for the people to implement. An adaptive leader helps constituents understand the problem themselves, and then they build a plan together. Such a leader is a facilitator "helping communities face their problems." In other words, she's like your shrink.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.