What makes a leader?

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I heard about a new study on NPR this morning about what differentiates leaders from “followers.” I think these terms are also far too black and white; leaders and followers exist on a continuum. I have always been interested in what makes a leader lead and a follower follow. In high school, I was definitely a follower. I lacked confidence in my abilities across a number of areas. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps because I was simply a teenager. It might also be due to the school I attended; I was surrounded by very intelligent people (and generally people on the aggressive, competitive side). I am not aggressive and I would typically rather follow than fight to be a leader over small issues.

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The summer after my freshman year of college, I was lucky enough to be accepted into a summer program focused on Ethics and Servant Leadership. During the program we had the chance to learn more about want it means to be a servant-leader; this completely changed my perspective on what and who a leader is. A leader can be strong, opinionated, and empathetic without being aggressive. This reframe shifted my mindset, now I want to lead because I value my opinions and know I can express them with confidence while having a conversation around what is best for a group or organization.

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So what about this NPR story? Well the study covered in the story found that leaders are those who are willing to make decisions for a group in the same way that they make their own personal decisions. These people trust their logic, instinct, and are willing to accept responsibility for a group outcome. “Followers” typically struggle with responsibility aversion. Being a leader doesn’t mean you are necessarily authoritarian, leaders often reach consensus with a group and then take responsibility for that choice.

At a time when we have such scary models of what it means to be a leader, it’s important that we think about what makes a leader and how we can train people to learn to lead well. Being a leader does not make you pushy, arrogant, or bossy–it means you are willing to take a risk, often for others, and take responsibility for your (or your group’s) actions.

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What does leadership mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be a leader?

References:

Micah G. Edelson, Rafael Polania, Christian C. Ruff, Ernst Fehr and Todd A. Hare. Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions. Science: August 2, 2018. DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0036

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