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Leaders can have many different styles — just compare President Donald Trump to Malala Yousafzai to your boss or the coach of your kid’s soccer team.
But a study published Thursday suggests that people who end up in leadership roles of various sorts all share one key trait: Leaders make decisions for a group in the same way that they make decisions for themselves. They don’t change their decision-making behavior, even when other people’s welfare is at stake.
That may come as a bit of surprise, given that most lists of key leadership qualities focus on things like charisma and communication skills.
“Previous research has mostly focused on these kinds of either personality characteristics of a leader, or situations where individuals are likely to lead,” says Micah Edelson, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “But we don’t know much about the cognitive or neurobiological process that is happening when you are choosing to lead or follow — when you’re faced with this choice to lead or follow.”
He notes that the decisions of leaders can affect the lives of many others. “It’s not always that easy to make such a choice, and it’s something that could be even a little bit aversive to you, to make a choice that impacts other people,” says Edelson. “And there are some people that seem to be able to do it; some people don’t. So we were interested in looking at that.”
He and his colleagues had volunteers come to the lab, and gave them questionnaires that are widely used to predict whether someone is likely to be in a position of leadership. They also collected information about people’s real-world leadership experience, such as what rank they’d achieved in the military (which is compulsory for men in Switzerland) or in the popular Swiss Scouts organization.
Then they put the participants into small groups and had them play a series of games in which individuals had to make choices about whether to take a risky action to get a reward.
“These are choices about uncertain gambles that have some probability of success and potential gains and losses,” Edelson explains.
The player could choose to either make the choice alone, or defer the decision to a majority vote.
The games were played under two conditions: Sometimes the decision affected only the individual player’s winnings and other times the decision affected what the entire group received.
What the researchers found is that people in general tended to avoid taking responsibility for what happens to others; deferral rates were the highest when decisions affected other people’s pocketbooks.
But the people who changed their decision-making behavior the least were the ones who generally served as leaders in the real-world and scored high on leadership questionnaires. Unlike others, they did not require more certainty before being ready to personally make a decision that would affect the whole group.
“On average, people tend to increase the certainty threshold when the choices affect the entire group. But higher-scoring leaders just keep their thresholds almost constant,” says Edelson, who says preliminary work using MRI brain scanning supports the idea that leaders and followers differ in how their brains process information about gains, losses, and risk in the context of thinking about others.
Other neuroscientists say the work, published in the journal Science, is fascinating.
“It seems a very reasonable finding,” says Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. “It works with our intuition, but in the same way it’s not something that you’d necessarily think about that distinguishes leadership.”
Sharot cautions that it’s not clear whether this decision-making behavior is what led people to their leadership position, or if they’ve developed it as a result of real-world leadership experience.
And this study doesn’t say anything about who ends up being a “good” leader, either.
But Sharot says the researchers have identified something about leadership that can hold true regardless of a leader’s style.
“You can have authoritarian leaders who like to have the ultimate control,” she says. “You can have democratic leaders who want to lead according to the will of the people. You have leaders who are risk-takers, leaders who are risk-adverse and conservative and so on.”
But what’s really interesting about this work, she says, is that these different types of leaders’ decision-making behavior stays the same regardless of whether the outcome affects only themselves or other people. “What this paper shows is that all these types of individuals, all these types of leaders, have something in common.”