What science tells us about leadership potential

September 22, 2016

Although the scientific study of leadership is well established, its key discoveries are unfamiliar to most people, including an alarmingly large proportion of those in charge of evaluating and selecting leaders.

This science-practitioner gap explains our disappointing state of affairs. 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.

How will the person lead? Not everyone leads in the same way. Leadership style is largely dependent on personality. 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, though charisma often reflects dark side traits, such as narcissism and psychopathy. Studies also highlight gender differences in leadership styles, with men being more transactional and women more transformational. However, gender roles are best understood as a psychological and normally distributed variable, as people differ in masculinity and femininity regardless of their biological sex.

Are leaders born or made? Any observable pattern of human behaviors is the byproduct of genetic and environmental influences, so the answer to this question is “both.” Estimates suggest that leadership is 30%-60% heritable, largely because the character traits that shape leadership — personality and intelligence — are heritable. While this suggests strong biological influences on leadership, it does not imply that nurture is trivial. Even more-heritable traits, such as weight (80%) and height (90%), are affected by environmental factors. Although there is no clear recipe for manipulating the environment in order to boost leadership potential, well-crafted coaching interventions boost critical leadership competencies by about 20%–30%.

What is the role of culture? Culture is key because it drives employee engagement and performance. However, culture is the cause of leadership so much as the result of it. Thus leaders create the explicit and implicit rules of interaction for organizational members, and these rules affect morale and productivity levels. When people’s values are closely aligned with the values of the organization (and leadership), they will experience higher levels of fit and purpose.

How early can we predict potential? Any prediction is a measure of potential or the probability of something happening. Because leadership is partly dependent on genetic and early childhood experiences, predicting it from an early age is certainly possible. Whether doing so is ethical or legal is a different question. However, most of the commonly used indicators to gauge leadership potential — educational achievement, emotional intelligence, ambition, and IQ — can be predicted from a very early age, so it would be naïve to treat them as more malleable. Perhaps in the future, leadership potential will be assessed at a very early age by inspecting people’s saliva.

Does gender matter? Less than we think. The fact that so many leaders are male has much more to do with social factors (people’s expectations, cultural norms, and opportunities) than actual gender differences in leadership potential, which are virtually nonexistent. 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, which creates a surplus of incompetent men in leadership positions. The solution is not to get women to act more like men, but to select leaders based on their actual competence.

Why do leaders derail? We cannot ignore the wide range of undesirable and toxic outcomes associated with leadership. It is not the absence of bright side qualities, but rather their coexistence with dark side tendencies, that makes leaders derail. Indeed, as Sepp Blatter, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Bernie Madoff demonstrate, technical brilliance often coexists with self-destructive and other destructive traits. This is just one reason why it is so important for leadership development and executive coaching interventions to highlight leaders’ weaknesses, and help them keep their toxic tendencies in check.

Although these findings have been replicated in multiple studies, a skeptic could ask, “Now that we’re (allegedly) living in an era of unprecedented technological change, could some of these findings be outdated?”

Not really.

Leadership evolved over millions of years, enabling us to function as group-living animals. It is therefore unlikely that the core foundations of leadership will change. That said, the specific skills and qualities that enable leaders and their groups to adapt to the world are certainly somewhat context dependent. For example, just as physical strength mattered more, and intellectual ability less, in the past, it is conceivable that human differentiators such as curiosity, empathy, and creativity will become more important in a world of ever-growing technological dependence and ubiquitous artificial intelligence.

In short, the science of leadership is well established. There is no real need to advance it in order to improve real-world practices. We should focus instead on applying what we already know, and ignoring what we think we know that isn’t true.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University.

Source: HBR