What science tells us about leadership

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic via hbr.org   Article

What Science Tells Us About Leadership Potential

“Leaders should drive employee engagement, yet only 30% of employees are engaged, costing the U.S. economy$550 billion a year in productivity loss. Moreover, a large global survey of employee attitudes toward management suggests that a whopping 82% of people don’t trust their boss. You only need to google ‘my boss is…’ or ‘my manager is…’ and see what the autocomplete text is to get a sense of what most people think of their leaders.

Unsurprisingly, over 50% of employees quit their job because of their managers. As the old saying goes, ‘people join companies, but quit their bosses.’ And the rate of derailment, unethical incidents, and counterproductive work behaviors among leaders is so high that it is hard to be shocked by a leader’s dark side. Research indicates that 30%–60% of leaders act destructively, with an estimated cost of $1–$2.7 million for each failed senior manager.

Part of the problem is that many widely held beliefs about leadership are incongruent with the scientific evidence. As Mark Twain allegedly noted, ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’ For example, it is quite common for people to believe that leadership is largely dependent on the situation, that it’s hard to predict whether someone will be a good (or bad) leader, and that any person can be a leader. In reality, some people have a much higher probability of becoming leaders, regardless of the context, and this probability can be precisely quantified with robust psychological tools.

What do we really know about the measurement of leadership potential? Here are some critical findings:

Who becomes a leader? Although leaders come in many shapes, a few personality characteristics consistently predict whether someone is likely to emerge as a leader. As the most widely cited meta-analysis in this area shows, people who are more adjusted, sociable, ambitious, and curious are much more likely to become leaders. (53% of the variability in leadership emergence is explained by these personality factors.) Unsurprisingly, higher levels of cognitive ability (IQ) also increase an individual’s likelihood to emerge as a leader, though by less than 5%. Of course, emergence doesn’t imply effectiveness, but one has to emerge in order to be effective. 

What are the key qualities of effective leaders? The ultimate measure of leader effectiveness is the performance of the leader’s team or organization, particularly vis-à-vis competitors. Leadership is a resource for the group, and effective leaders enable a group to outperform other groups. While the same personality and ability traits described above help leaders become more effective — they are not just advantageous for emergence — the best leaders also show higher levels of integrity, which enables them to create a fair and just culture in their teams and organizations. In addition, effective leaders are generally more emotionally intelligent, which enables them to stay calm under pressure and have better people skills. Conversely, narcissistic leaders are more prone to behaving in unethical ways, which is likely to harm their teams.”

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