Natural Born Leaders

3 November 2015 | Leaders and Leadership

We’ve been thinking recently about leadership. In any group, it’s often the most assertive, confident speaker who will assume the leadership title. That person may act the leader and follow steps they believe to be part of being a leader. However recent research suggests that these individuals, while natural born orators, frequently do not retain the leadership position. In fact it’s a combination of a particular kind of intelligence and authenticity, which creates and sustains leadership.

There has been a great deal of research validating the “five factor” personality model and its relationship to leadership effectiveness.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 analysed how the five factors identified in the ‘Five Factor Personality Model’ are related to leadership emergence and effectiveness (Judge T et al 2002)

They found that Extraversion emerged as the most consistent correlate of leadership when controlling for the other Big Five traits but noted that 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, and the most talkative appear most “leader like” initially.

This finding was echoed in the work in two studies by Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley, which found that 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). Their research, found that 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.”

Therefore it would seem that dominance leads to influence at least in part because it entails more confident and initiative-taking behaviours. A second study corroborated the findings; that just being more verbal and assertive seemed to signal “leadership presence” to other group members initially.

But what about retaining leadership?

One way to answer this question is to review a classic study by Paulhaus who explored the emergence of leadership in groups (Paulhaus D 1998). 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 predicated 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

So the above research suggests, speaking up, and appearing confident seem to be initially important to attain a leadership position. This runs slightly counter to most group theories which suggest that people can’t attain influence simply by behaving assertively and forcefully. However the conclusions reached by Paulhaus, and that of several other leadership theorists is that effective, long term leaders need to have intelligence and skills. Jim Collins’ insights into ‘Good to Great Level 5 Leaders’ adds to this, describing a leader who blends genuine personal humility with intense professional will. The paradoxical combinations of shyness and fearlessness and modesty and wilfulness, he argues, define ‘Level 5’ leaders capable of elevating organisational performance.

At hpc we believe that authenticity is pivotal; people respect leaders who are true to themselves, as well illustrated by Bill George of Medtronic, in his work ‘True North’. An individual who remains clear and committed to his or her personal values, as well as those of the company, is likely to instill loyalty and to motivate a team who respond to that consistency and transparency.

So yes, leadership should be natural, with intelligence and with the right skills.

Authors: hpc with our research partner, Kenneth Nowack PhD of Envisia Learning

Image features Paul O’Connell: 108 Irish Caps and a Jim Collins Level 5 Leader? Always pragmatic in approach, his humility and authenticity as a leader shone through.


1. Judge, T. et al. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 50-66 []

2. 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 []

3. Paulhaus, D. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptivenessoftrait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 197-208 []

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