Traits of a Great Leader

January 30, 2008  

Hillary Clinton and Barack ObamaWhen you think of great leaders, what traits come to mind? Honest? Competent? Inspirational? Courageous? Fair? Looks like a leader?

Although that last one is typically not found on lists of leadership characteristics, looks may be related to one’s leadership style.

In an interesting article published in The Economist, researchers found that students could determine a person’s leadership traits just by looking at a photograph of them. Here are some excerpts (please note that British spellings have been retained):

Dr Ambady and Mr Rule showed 100 undergraduates the faces of the chief executives of the top 25 and the bottom 25 companies in the Fortune 1,000 list. Half the students were asked how good they thought the person they were looking at would be at leading a company and half were asked to rate five personality traits on the basis of the photograph. These traits were competence, dominance, likeability, facial maturity (in other words, did the individual have an adult-looking face or a baby-face) and trustworthiness.

The results of their study…show that both the students’ assessments of the leadership potential of the bosses and their ratings for the traits of competence, dominance and facial maturity were significantly related to a company’s profits.

Sadly, the characteristics of likeability and trustworthiness appear to have no link to company profits, suggesting that when it comes to business success, being warm and fuzzy does not matter much (though these traits are not harmful).

Be sure to read the entire Economist article.  The article provides some fascinating insights into our perceptions of leaders and the qualities of good leaders.

How Important is Likability in Leadership?


It is important to point out that good business performance does not necessarily imply good leadership skills on the part of the CEO. There are many other factors that contribute to business success. Regardless, to keep things simple, let’s assume that good leaders do in fact deliver good results. Given that, the article makes two important points.

  1. There is a perception that particular traits are important to good leadership, namely competence, dominance, and facial maturity. Likability and trustworthiness are not.
  2. Just by looking at a picture, we can get a sense of someone’s leadership qualities and hence their personality.

Point #1 (and to a lesser extent, point #2) has been the topic of much discussion in the media these days, in particular as it relates to the Presidential race. Many have criticized Hillary Clinton for being unlikable. The pundits say this is a big problem for her campaign. Interestingly, many claim that her victory in the New Hampshire primaries was due to her “tearing up” while answering a question at a roundtable session with undecided female voters. Showing her softer side made her more likeable. But does this matter?

If the study is accurate, likability is not a determinant of one’s leadership abilities. Clinton’s main competition, Barack Obama, is often praised for his likability and trustworthiness. Assuming that both Hillary and Barack are equally competent, and that leadership skills are what this country wants and needs, why is so much attention being given to the softer attributes of the candidates?

Part of the answer may come from another finding in the study:

“… instant judgments by the ignorant are more accurate than assessments made by well-informed professionals. It looks as if knowing a chief executive disrupts the ability to judge his performance.”

Maybe, as we get to know the candidates more, we get lost in the details and lose sight of what is really important. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink suggested that often we make our best decisions in a blink of an eye. The more we know, the worse our decisions.

Or maybe in the case of Hillary, society has a difficult time accepting a woman with “masculine” characteristics, even if these traits are viewed as important to a good leader. The Economist article did say that “all of the businessmen were male and all were white, so there were no confounding variables of race or sex.

Leadership Stereotypes

Leadership is a tricky topic. The study addresses “perceptions and opinions” about leadership. But do these opinions reflect reality? Do we really know the attributes of a good leader? Or do we only have stereotypes of what a good leader looks like – both physically and characteristically?

My prediction? In 10 years time, we will see a shift in the characteristics deemed critical to good leadership. I would like to think that trustworthiness (in particular) becomes a key attribute of our future leaders.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

P.S. I will probably address point #2 (a picture can accurately depict personality) in a future blog entry.

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3 Responses to “Traits of a Great Leader”

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    [...] a previous blog entry, I discussed an Economist article that [...]

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    […] good communication and a fair amount of humility), there are some distinct qualities that set good leadershipapart from likability. People who are good leaders may be likable, but more importantly they are […]

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    […] good communication and a fair amount of humility), there are some distinct qualities that set good leadership apart from likability. People who are good leaders may be likable, but more importantly they are […]