Research to Go

Myths and truths about leadership

Can our upbringing affect our ability to lead others? What are the traits of good leaders and who has it in them to become one? Researchers look to psychology to find answers.

Management is a huge field of research and a discipline that is taught in some form throughout most, if not all, programmes at a business school. Among other things, management is about how to best organise companies and develop strategies.

Leadership, however, is a much more interpersonal field, which includes how to achieve results through others. This is where psychology, and especially the field of social psychology, comes into play.

Leaders under the magnifying glass

Although there is no one universally accepted definition of leadership, research can tell us a great deal about what kind of behaviour, or leadership style, achieves the best results. Therefore, researchers are studying leaders and their relationships to find out what psychological, biological and social factors are related to different leadership styles.

Put another way: What does it take to create good leadership?

In the pursuit of this knowledge, psychologists play an important role, and how the managers handle the relationships to their employees is central to the research.

Let's look at what the researchers say about different leadership styles before we get into the characteristics of good leaders.

The most effective leadership style

Research cannot teach leaders how to act in every situation, but studies can tell us a lot about which type of leadership styles are generally linked to better results, and which rarely work even if the intentions are good.

An example of the latter is related leaders’ level of controlling their employees. The Scandinavian leadership model is known to be quite egalitarian, but authoritarian leadership can be found all over the world. So on which end of the scale is it better to be? Professor Bård Kuvaas points to studies performed across cultures that conclude that the more authoritarian the leader is experienced, the poorer their employees perform.

With regard to what actually works, there is a wealth of names and different definitions for the best formula, explains Professor Linda Lai. Whether given the label trust-based, supportive, or transformational leadership, there is one thing that can be said to be common: Prosocial leaders who are generous often produce good results. They do this partly by highlighting employees’ performance and helping them achieve their goals.

The qualities leaders need

Chances are that you'll have to take a personality test at some point when applying for a job, if you haven't already. The purpose is to map personality traits to see how well you fit or perform. Similarly, some of these traits are essential for good leadership.

The problem is that the qualities that will get you selected to a leadership position are not the same ones that actually make you a good leader, Lai explains. The majority who seek leadership positions are more obsessed with power, more extrovert and dominant, and more narcissistic than most. These people are more often chosen and prone to hire someone similar to themselves in the next round so that it becomes a vicious circle.

To make matters worse, your chances of becoming a leader may partly be predetermined by your background and other factors. Professor Samuli Knüpfer's research shows that top executives are on average far taller than most people, but fortunately also that they are usually smart and good with people.

But what does research say about the actual characteristics of the best leaders? Professor Linda Lai emphasises that they generally take the responsibility that comes with their power seriously and that they are easy-going, curious, motivating. They also have the ability to give their employees direction and meaning in their jobs.

Several researchers also include the subordinates in the assessment of good leadership. Professor Cathrine Filstad's research suggests that there is good reason to be more concerned with the relationship between manager and subordinate, than merely the characteristics of the managers themselves.

Can leaders change?

Regardless of what is most important, there is no doubt that the relationships employees have with their leaders can affect their ability to thrive and perform. Psychologist and Associate Professor Per-Magnus Thompson has studied these dynamics.

Tompson's findings show that leaders’ ability to create good relationships can be traced as far back as to their upbringing. For example, if someone had cold and distant parents, they were more likely to have an avoidant attachment style. When something is difficult, the leader can then react with being distanced, cold, hard or ambiguous.

It can be useful to managers to be aware of what type of attachment style they have, but such traits can be difficult to change in adulthood, Thompson explains.

Personality and deep reaction patterns have been considered relatively unchangeable in psychology. Recent research, however, shows that it may be possible to change personality through dedicated focus on improvement.

Thus, there may still be hope for leaders to change for the better, explains Professor and Head of the Department of Leadership and Organization at BI, Øyvind Lund Martinsen.

At BI, academics with backgrounds from psychology and many other different disciplines contribute to applied research that aims to improve business and society as a whole.

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