Leadership: the leader or the group?

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Leadership- the leader or the group_v1_shallow


Is leadership about the individual leader or the group they lead?  Are you a leader?


Scott Gregory, Hogan’s CEO, recently investigated these questions and his conclusions are summarised in this blog.  To read the full article click here.


The true nature of leadership

If you really want to understand what leadership is about, it is useful to start with three fundamentals about humans:

  • First of all, we are biologically wired to live in groups. We always have and always will be group-living creatures.
  • Secondly, because we are group-living, we are motivated to get along with other people because there is safety in numbers.
  • Finally, we are also hard-wired to compete for resources because better resources maximise our individual chance for survival.


So, there’s the rub:

People are inherently driven by two competing motives that can destroy group success. We have greater chances of success by creating relationships that lead to safety in numbers, but we also have greater chances of success by competing fiercely to get more resources—


We all need to get along, but we also need to get ahead.


Those needs are at odds, and when unmanaged in groups, the groups fail. The most successful groups are able to get along and get ahead.


People are rarely balanced across these two motives. Some people may be overly careful about going along with the group to maintain positive regard and avoid conflict. If the whole group is overly focused on harmony, it will lack direction. They may be happy and kind to each other, but they’re unlikely to accomplish much.


Others may be overly competitive in a way that destroys group harmony and safety in numbers. If group members are focused on competing with each other, the group will likely be directionless too, because of competing perspectives on what the direction should be.


They will be infighting instead of focusing on accomplishing common goals or overcoming external threats to success (e.g., other groups or companies).


Only when both motives are managed and balanced within the group can it grow stronger and achieve its objectives. That was true thousands of years ago for groups living in caves, and it remains true today in the modern corporate world.


A more productive way to define leadership is about group outcomes

The purpose of leadership is to help group members balance needs for getting along and getting ahead in a way that maximises the group’s success.


If we define the purpose of leadership as helping the group to succeed, suddenly a title or one’s position becomes irrelevant, and we have a window into what leadership really is.


So, back to you and the question of whether you are a leader.


Don’t trust yourself on this one. A lot of us tend to think we are better than we actually are. Besides, it really is unimportant what you think. It’s critical, though, that the others you are trying to lead think you are a leader. After all, they are the ones who will choose whether or not to follow you.


So, how do you find out whether others think you are a leader?

The good news is, there are three good ways to gain insight into your current leadership ability and how to be a more effective leader.


First, group results are the ultimate test.

Have you been able to lead groups that were successful? If you have led groups whose outcomes were easily definable and measurable, there is data available to help you answer this question.


Think about customer service call centers, for example. They typically track a host of metrics, including customer satisfaction, time from customer engagement to problem resolution, cost of problem resolution, etc. Comparing one call center group’s results to another’s is pretty simple and provides a good proxy for leadership effectiveness. But most group success measures aren’t that clear cut, so you need alternatives like the following two.


Second, 360-degree feedback tools can provide insight that may be valuable for helping you understand what you are doing well and what you may need to do differently.

Because leadership is about helping the group succeed, feedback from the group about your leadership is critical. Most 360s focus on four areas:


  1. Technical/business skills — The technical know-how or competency you possess.
  2. Intrapersonal skills – How you manage yourself; your reactions to stress, self-discipline, work-ethic, etc.
  3. Interpersonal skills — How you interact with and communicate with others; your ability to initiate and sustain relationships.
  4. Leadership skills — How you set direction, manage performance, delegate, etc.


Note, however, that if you think about leadership as a resource for group success, all four of the foregoing areas are important, even though only one of them may be labelled leadership.


Results from 360-degree feedback can give you clarity about your leadership from the perspective of the group. Research shows that, from the view of those who work under a leader, four key characteristics are of prime importance:


  1. Integrity — The key question here is, do they trust you? People want to know that leaders won’t take advantage of their position for personal gain.
  2. Judgement — The key question here is, do people see you making well-reasoned decisions that balance things like short- and long-term consequences, risks and rewards, and strategic and tactical elements? In addition, people want to know if you will learn from mistakes and make corrections when needed.
  3. Competence — The key question here is, do people believe you know what you are talking about? Do you have the technical and/or business knowledge required to help the group succeed?
  4. Vision — The key question here is, do people see you as someone who can explain what the mission is, how their work fits into it, and what needs to be done to achieve it?


Third, there is a great deal of high-quality research on the personality characteristics of effective leaders, and the four preceding essentials can be accurately measured.

Personality researchers have been able to predict leadership success from people’s personality characteristics, so this is a helpful way to gain insight into the question of whether you are a leader.


Essentially, there are three aspects of personality that impact leadership ability:


  1. The Bright Side— This is your day-to-day work reputation. Characteristics like drive and emotional resilience that enable one to work well with a variety of people are particularly important for leadership success.
  2. The Dark Side— These are characteristics that can be overused, particularly when a leader is reacting in the moment, not self-managing, or being stressed. These characteristics are known to interfere with communication and relationship-building, gaining buy-in and clarity on direction, and the ability to balance conformity with being flexible and independent-minded.
  3. The Inside (Values)— Although related to personality, values are different. They are more about one’s intentions or preferences and are key to the fit between a leader and his/her organisation’s values. For example, an individual who values and creates a culture of creativity and experimentation will not fit very well in a nuclear facility where processes and protocols must be followed precisely and repeatedly to ensure safety.


By using personality measures, you can gain insight into your ability to be an effective leader even if you have never had a leadership position.


Personality predicts leadership ability, so understanding your natural strengths and development needs concerning integrity, judgment, competence, and vision can help you strategically invest in development activities that will help improve performance in leadership roles.


But, back to the question, are you a leader?

As you work to answer the question, keep in mind the key points in this article:

1. Leadership is about the ability to guide and help a group to achieve its goals. It’s not about your title or position.
2. Leading is about providing a group with direction and making sure that the group works together to pursue that direction.
3. The ultimate test of whether one is a leader is whether one’s group is successful.
4. It is largely unimportant whether you think you are a leader. It’s critically important what others think—they are the ones who will need to follow you after all.
5. Leadership effectiveness is not a mystery. Group results, insights from others through 360 feedback, and understanding the similarities and gaps between your personality characteristics and those related to leadership success all can provide you with the strategic insight you need to develop your skills in the best ways.



Scott Gregory is Hogan Assessment Systems' CEO.  Dr. Gregory brings years of expertise in executive selection, development, and succession to his leadership and vision for all aspects of Hogan’s domestic and global business. He is instrumental in providing expertise on executive selection, development, and succession to Hogan’s global, corporate clients.