“It’s easy to get good players. Getting them to play together, that’s the hard part.”

Casey Stengel

One of the things we have done for the last 20 years is to identify potential future leaders for organizations using developmental assessment centers ((Nowack, K. (1997). Congruence Between Self and Other Ratings and Assessment Center Performance. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Volume 12, 145-166)). The assessment centers are typically several days long and encompass a wide range of group exercises, simulations, 360-degree feedback and other assessments observed and evaluated by other psychologists and trained assessors.

Assessing “Potential” in Future Team Leaders

In a recent HBR article, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz argues that “potential” is now more important for selecting future leadership talent than cognitive ability, experience or even traditional competencies that many assessment center exercises are based on ((Fernandez-Araoz, C. (2014). 21st Century Talent Spotting. Harvard Business Review, 92, 46-56)). He argues that prospective employees should be evaluated on on five key indicators: the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.

A careful analysis of his labels and definitions suggests that his recommendations are bit of “old wine” in a “new bottle” with each of these “indicators” being something that most organizational psychologists have long found to be useful for all leadership positions:

  • Curiosity = Five factor personality of high openness to experience
  • Insight = Flexible decision style (Brousseau, et al., 2006)
  • Engagement = Social and emotional competence (Nowack, 2012)
  • Determination = Five factor personality factors of high conscientiousness and high emotional stabilities

I’d also add that “character/integrity” is essential to add to this list of key future “potential” attributes. An inability to engender trust will almost always derail the most insightful, resilient and emotionally intelligent leader–now or in the future.

Personality Attributes of Those Who Wind Up Actually Leading Groups

In each assessment center we always create at least one or two leaderless group exercises (e.g., problem solving or consensus seeking) measuring leadership, interpersonal and problem solving behaviors. We always ask participants at the end of the exercise to rank and rate each other (a very difficult and challenging task) and we use this data to help identify how our own perceptions of who emerges as leaders matches with those of the other participants. We also try to compare these results with one of our own 360 feedback assessments being used to evaluate interpersonal competence like our Emotional Intelligence View 360 (EIV360).

One universal observation is that the most dominant members (those who come across as verbal, confident and the most talkative) appear to emerge initially as the leader in a group but many, if not most, tend to fade into the sunset. A couple of new studies tend to illuminate what we have seen for many years.

There has been a great deal of research validating the “five factor” personality model and its relationship to leadership effectiveness (and health). These “five factors” tend to commonly be known as Extraversion (assertiveness, positive affect), Emotional Stability (negative affectivity, stress tolerance), Openness to Experience (risk taking, artistic predispositions, openness), Conscientiousness (achievement striving, dependability, organized) and Agreeableness (caring for others, collaborative).

A study by Tim Judge and colleagues at the University of Florida has analyzed how these five factors are related to leadership emergence and effectiveness ((Judge, T. et al. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 50-66)).

They found that Extraversion emerged as the most consistent correlate of leadership when controlling for the other Big Five traits. His findings suggest that Extraversion is the most important trait of leaders and effective leadership (Note: Extraversion was more strongly related to leader emergence than to leader effectiveness). These results for Extraversion make sense, as both sociable and dominant people are more likely to assert themselves in group situation, but the most talkative, confident, and energetic appear most “leader like” initially.

Do Dominant Group Members Begin as Leaders?

In two studies by Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley, dominant leaders appeared to achieve influence in their groups in part because they were seen as more competent by fellow group members ((Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. (2009). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in groups? A competence-signaling account of personality dominance. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 96, 491-503))

To measure task competence, they included ratings of task expertise and general cognitive abilities. To measure social competence, they included ratings of leadership and verbal skills by observers. They used a set of group exercises that was designed to be engaging and evoke a lot of discussion. After all group sessions had been conducted, outside observers watched a videotape of the sessions and rated group members on the same dimensions on which group members rated each other.

Consistently, the group members who spoke up the most were rated the highest for such qualities as “general intelligence” and “dependable and self-disciplined.” The ones who didn’t speak as much tended to score higher for less desirable traits, including “conventional and uncreative.”

These findings suggest that dominant individuals (social, talkative, confident) may emerge as early leaders in group settings by appearing helpful to the group’s overall success as opposed to aggressively grabbing power. It seems that dominance leads to influence at least in part because it entails more confident and initiative-taking behaviors. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the groups in the study used the first answer anyone shouted out — mostly ignoring the ideas of others even if they were actually better.

Anderson and his colleagues also designed a second study to evaluate if it was possible that people who talked more did so because they simply had more to contribute. They found that people who spoke up more were again more likely to be described by other group members as “leaders” and likelier to be rated as competent in the task they were working on. Just being more verbal and assertive seemed to signal “leadership presence” to the other group members initially.

Do Dominant Leaders at the Beginning Remain Respected Leaders Over Time?

One way to answer this question is to review a classic study by Palhaus who explored the emergence of leadership in groups ((Paulhaus, D. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptivenessoftrait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 197-208)). His study and findings can be summarized below:

  • Two longitudinal studies (7 weeks) explored leadership dynamics in unstructured groups in which participants were strangers
  • Narcissism predicted making a strong initial impression and being selected as leader
  • These individuals were subsequently rated negatively by the group as a result of arrogance and high-handedness at the end of the 7-week period

His findings suggest that just acting confident and speaking up seem to be the initial ingredients for the emergence of leadership. Why they do isn’t really clear because most group theories suggest that people can’t attain influence simply by behaving assertively and forcefully—they really need to have intelligence and skills.

So, if you want to fake being “leader like” it appears you just need to talk – and talk a lot when you first get into new groups.

If you want to remain being seen as a leader you might consider trying harder to learn from others than assert your own ideas and opinions.….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate, Selection

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