Good Leader

First, let’s define “good leader.”

In the article Characteristics of Leadership Effectiveness: Implementing Change and Driving Innovation in Organizations by Gilley, Dixon, and Gilley (2008), we find a simple but operational definition for our use here.

According to the article, a good leader can “communicate appropriately and motivate others significantly” to forward the mission.

Good Leaders

The key concept to understand is that a good leader can interact with followers so that they want to listen and want to be motivated, not that leaders actually motivate (control) them.

In this definition, to answer the question of innateness, we must generalize this definition to a category of human nature; our social nature.

In the literal meaning of innate, I would say very little that makes a good leader can be attributed to intrinsic sources.

Some leaders, who do not have direct contact with those they lead, may naturally lead simply in the way they look and talk and carry themselves (e.g., Warren Harding Effect).

But those effects often wear off as the leader’s direct interaction with followers increases. Then it is how the leader interacts with followers and the decisions they see their leader make that will differentiate them as good or bad.

Leadership Style

What little might be attributed to innateness could be connected to such things as temperament or attachment style, which is often visible very early in life, but I won’t go into them here.

It should suffice to know that such styles often change as we grow up.

However, if their upbringing wasn’t conducive to them growing out of their temperament or attachment styles as children, such may carry over into their leadership style.

For instance, if someone is insecure, they may not trust, which leads to micromanaging, pigeonholing, or withholding opportunity, making for bad leaders.

If the leader has a problem regulating emotions, they will lose trust and send followers into self-protection mode.

Consequently, leaders may have a difficult time motivating them, or they won’t listen. All this relates to how a leader interacts with followers, which is why I brought up the category of social nature.

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Know Thy Self

Leaders would be wise to know themselves well and honestly.

If a leader has an innate trait that gives them an advantage, they should use it wisely.  And if it imposes a disadvantage, they should learn how to overcome it.

All human beings have a social nature with many  “instinctive” qualities that can vary between people.

Some of those qualities may be advantageous or disadvantageous to motivate others or communicate appropriately.

Someone diagnosed with mild ASD, for instance, might have an inherent disadvantage but can still become an excellent leader.

Advantages, such as the Warren Harding Effect, tend to persist as leaders simply because those with the power to put them in power were likely wooed by those advantages.

Red Herring

I call such innate qualities Red Herring Qualities. They are Red Herrings because they distract from detecting, at least early on, the real performance of a leader.

We all have several fundamental drives or innate social goals.

One major goal is to differentiate what group we do and do not belong to and who does or does not belong to our group (in short, where and who is safe).

Some are more likely to fulfill this goal proactively by excluding others who do not want to belong to their group.

This instinctive drive may have led them, like children, to actively exclude other children, AKA bullying (about 1/3 of all public school children are bullied on a persistent and long-term basis).

However, these are not attributed to mental or emotional problems but rather normal human social instincts left unchecked.

If such persists as adults, it will disadvantage leaders who may be more prone to favoritism and nepotism.  These are bad leadership traits and cancers to an organization.

Social Instinct

If disadvantageous social instinct is left unchecked, we neither learned nor were taught to override and reprogram our social selves – even if we seemed to (may hide it).

As children, we naturally have little ability to override and reprogram because the equipment we need to do so (brain structures) is not finished developing until were are in our early 20s.

Mostly, if innateness impacts our leadership ability, it does so because of how our innateness interacted within the contexts of our daily lives throughout our life (nature + nurture, not nature vs. nurture).

Meaning that whether someone may be a “natural” leader or not likely hinges on their background, not their genes.

When we talk about innateness, we have to understand the truth about human nature: we can override innateness, which in summary, we all can learn to be good leaders.

What Makes a Good Leader?

If you have ideas, you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.