Who Has the Best Chance of Becoming a Leader?

September 26, 2016 Updated: September 30, 2016

Not all leaders are the same. But good leaders have common personality and ability traits, says Harvard Business Review (HBR).

It challenges the common belief that leadership is hard to predict and largely dependent on the circumstances.

“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,” states Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of a recent HBR report on the topic. Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems and professor of business psychology at University College London.

Who Becomes a Leader? 

The report presents some important findings related to personality and ability traits of leaders.

“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,” Chamorro-Premuzic states.

There is also a high correlation between cognitive ability (IQ) and leadership potential. Higher levels of IQ increase a person’s chance to become a leader.

Emotional intelligence is important too. Leaders who are emotionally intelligent have better people skills and can stay calm in difficult times.

Who Is an Effective Leader?

Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” said: “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

So effective leaders can be measured by looking at the performance of their teams relative to competitors. They make sure their teams set the right goals and move towards achieving those goals.

And leaders who value integrity are able to create a fair and ethical culture that, in return, boosts the performance of their teams.

With respect to gender, the report says being male or female has no material impact on leadership potential.

There are more male leaders mainly because of social factors like people’s expectations, cultural norms, and opportunities, according to Chamorro-Premuzic.

“In fact, some studies have shown that women are slightly more effective as leaders on the job, but this may be because the standards for appointing women to leadership positions are higher than those for appointing men,” he states. 

(Harvard Business Review)
(Harvard Business Review)

The Dark Side of Leadership

Not everyone leads in the same way. Personality determines the leadership style.

“Ambitious, thick-skinned leaders tend to be more entrepreneurial, so they are focused on growth and innovation. Curious, sociable, and sensitive leaders tend to be more charismatic,” the report states.

However, there is one issue with charisma. It may reflect bad traits such as narcissism and psychopathy.

“Indeed, as Sepp Blatter, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Bernie Madoff demonstrate, technical brilliance often coexists with self-destructive and other destructive traits,” Chamorro-Premuzic writes.

Narcissistic leaders have the tendency to behave in unethical ways that will eventually harm their teams, organizations, and families.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

So power can be very toxic and that is one reason why leaders need coaches who could regularly point out their weaknesses and bad tendencies. 

Are Leaders Born or Made?

According to the report, leadership is a result of both “genetic and environmental influences.”

“Estimates suggest that leadership is 30 to 60 percent heritable, largely because the character traits that shape leadership—personality and intelligence—are heritable,” the report states.

“While this suggests strong biological influences on leadership, it does not imply that nurture is trivial.”

So what kind of environment enhances leadership potential? There is no clear recipe says the report, however, good coaching can improve leadership potential by 20-30 percent.

“Because leadership is partly dependent on genetic and early childhood experiences, predicting it from an early age is certainly possible.”

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