What Makes a Great Leader?

What Makes a Great Leader?

Business November 09, 2015 / By Dr. Brian Davidson
What Makes a Great Leader?

We know that leadership matters - but what are the personal characteristics that separate the average leader from the great leader? What makes remarkable leaders tick?

We know that leaders make a difference – both for the organization as well as for the people within it.  Despite their importance, however, we know very little about the people that take on these roles.  Who are the people who become leaders in an organization, and what are the factors that contribute to someone becoming a leader?  In examining the research behind questions like these, we have unearthed some interesting findings.    

First, research suggests there are components which we have no control over that can increase our odds to obtain leadership positions.  Using twin studies to examine the extent that nature and nurture play in leadership, researchers have concluded that about 30% of leadership occupancy is the result of genetic factors.  So which factors impact whether a person may obtain a leadership position?  

Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest our birth order may impact the likelihood of us becoming leaders.  When looking at birth order analysis, one trend tends to appear again and again - those obtaining leadership positions are more likely to be the oldest sibling in their family.  When looking at our country’s presidents, this finding holds true, as 64% of U.S. presidents have been first born.  Likewise, a very recent study concluded that first born children are almost 30 percent more likely to obtain top management positions than third born children.  

Psychologists have also learned that certain stable psychological factors can increase the likelihood of a person obtaining a leadership position.  For example, researchers have illustrated there is a positive correlation between intelligence and leadership occupancy.  Additionally, personality factors have also been shown to be related to leadership occupancy, as extroverts are more likely to obtain leadership roles than introverts.  

In addition to these factors, height can also help increase the odds a person becomes a leader within their organization.  The next time you are at your place of employment, look your leaders in the eyes.  Chances are, when doing so, you will be looking slightly upward - as leaders tend to be a bit taller than average.  

In a study examining Swedish men, economist Erik Lindquist found that taller men were more likely to obtain positions as managers.  In his research, he found that a 10 centimeter (3.94 inches) increase in height was associated with a 2.2 percentage point increase in the likelihood of having a managerial position.  

While this information may be interesting, what we have learned is that these factors are only predictors of obtaining leadership positions – it shares very little about whether those individuals obtaining these positions were successful as leaders.  But what about those people who serve as true transformational leaders – the ones who motivate, inspire, empower, and ultimately transform organizations to rise to new heights?  What makes these remarkable leaders tick? What is it that separates the average leader from a great leader?

Is it cognitive ability, family background, years of leadership experience, age, or non-cognitive skills?  This was the question I asked when completing my dissertation.  What I found was surprising.  When looking for a great leader, one should first look to the individual’s non-cognitive skillset.  Specifically, in my study I found the non-cognitive factors of grit and hope were excellent predictors of transformational leadership behavior.  

On the other hand, we found that elements we initially thought would predict transformational leadership behavior – factors such as cognitive ability, years of leadership experience, and family background - did not, in fact, predict successful leadership behavior.  What ultimately mattered in predicting great leadership was the non-cognitive skills of leaders.    

In analyzing these results, we came to realize that transformational leaders are hopeful leaders.  Possessing a high level of hope, great leaders are able to pursue very meaningful goals and navigate around the challenges and obstacles that arise while in pursuit of those goals.  This hopeful mindset then trickles down to others in the organization and assists in building a hopeful workforce capable of tackling difficult challenges.

Like hope, grit was also a powerful predictor of transformational leadership behavior. By having high levels of grit, great leaders are more likely to stay committed to their long-term goals and persist through the challenges and setbacks than less gritty leaders.  This assists these gritty individuals in gaining the respect and admiration of those in the organization and ultimately persevering in getting their organizations to achieve greatness.  

Beyond hope and grit, our continued research and work at the Intrinsic Institute in measuring and building non-cognitive skills in leaders at all levels has shown there are other non-cognitive skills that also help predict great leadership.  Indeed, if we want to predict who will become a great leader, we need to find those individuals who possess a combination of these intangible “it” factors that drive optimal human and organizational performance.  

While there are factors such as height, IQ, birth order, and aspects of personality that may make a person appear more “leader-like” and therefore increase the odds of them obtaining a leadership position, we must not forget the importance of a person’s non-cognitive skills.  Factors like hope, grit, resiliency, self-determination, adaptability, and other crucial non-cognitive skills are the ultimate difference makers.  Indeed, these factors are incredibly important for leaders to possess and should definitely be taken into account when trying to identify and develop great leaders.     

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