Everybody wants to be a leader. But sadly, not always for the right reasons. If leadership roles weren’t associated with higher levels of personal career success, including more status, money, and power, there would surely be a much lower proportion of people in the world willing to be leaders—particularly among men.
Since leadership is a key coordination process that enables people to work together as a high-performing team, the critical question should not be what you need to become a leader, but what you need to be an effective leader.
Do you have what it takes to turn a group of people into an A-team? Can you be a strong catalyst for team morale, performance, and well-being? Are you likely to be a positive influence on those who are asked to follow you, or are you just in it for your own personal gain? These may seem like obvious questions, but given the high number of managers who are deemed incompetent (just google “my boss is . . .” or “my manager is . . .” to see what most people think of their bosses) they’re clearly not.
One of the problems is that people are generally unaware of their leadership potential, not least because of the general human tendency we have to assume we are better than we actually are, especially when we aren’t competent.
This is particularly true with leadership, as there’s a general lack of understanding as to the qualities truly needed to lead effectively and unlock a team’s potential. Since the capacity to fool others into thinking that you have talent is substantially enhanced when you have already fooled or deceived yourself, what we need is more self-awareness. That includes awareness of our limitations in order to exclude ourselves from things that may be not just a poor fit for our abilities, values, and preferences, but also a nuisance for those who are impacted by our incompetence.
So before you aspire to leadership roles, check if you have these qualities.
Although you don’t need to be the world’s top expert on something, you will only be able to guide a team to better decisions than they would be able to make without you if you have enough technical expertise in the relevant area. The best bosses don’t just know about the work their employees do. But domain-specific knowledge and technical expertise will give you the credibility and enable you to leverage other people’s knowledge in the best way, if only because you have to know what you don’t know.
Integrity is a core ingredient of job performance in any area of competence, according to science. Leadership is no exception. And yet, if integrity were a norm among leaders, we would not live in a world where corporate scandals, fraud, and #MeToo were so ubiquitous. One problem with integrity is that everyone thinks they have it. In fact, the best way to assess it is how others view you rather than the way you view yourself.
What are managers and leaders like, when their subordinates and followers see them as honest and ethical? The answer indicates that contrary to popular belief, the most ethical managers are rather boring. They have high levels of self-control and are predictable, well-organized, and reliable. Think Angela Merkel rather than Donald Trump. Sadly, our morbid fascination with the dark side of personality leads to an overrepresentation of leaders without integrity or self-control in movies and books.
Irrespective of what you know, you will only be an effective leader if you are capable of learning much more, particularly when knowledge and expertise become rapidly outdated and the complexity of problems is continuously increasing. This is why meta-analyses show that learning ability is a consistent marker of leadership effectiveness.
Curiosity and openness to experience are also pivotal when it comes to keeping up learning and developing because curious people are more open to negative feedback and more likely to question themselves. When most companies are trying to leverage cognitive diversity at work, we need inclusive leaders to help people of different backgrounds and psychological mindsets get along and work together as a unit. This will only happen if the leader is capable of taking other peoples’ points of view in order to not just tolerate, but also embrace different perspectives and values.
Though widely celebrated, emotional intelligence (EQ) is often misunderstood. But people who have more of it are generally more rewarding to deal with; they are more stable, empathetic, and better at reading and understanding others, especially when they are different.
Large scientific studies show that these qualities enable people to lead more effectively, including adopting a more transformational style of leadership. Put simply, the less irritable, more composed, and more socially insightful you are, the more likely you will be to lead effectively.
One final consideration is to understand that very few leaders have the full package described here. But even if you have, for instance, only two out of four of these qualities, you are probably in a good place to develop the others and augment your leadership potential.
But nothing is possible unless you become aware of your limitations and you work hard to close the gap between who you are and who you actually want to be. As the great management guru Warren Bennis once noted, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”