Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Role Models and Beliefs About Leadership

When do you benefit from a leadership role model?

It is hard to be a leader.  Even those people who want to take on leadership roles have to learn to lead effectively.  On the one hand, you have to be responsible for getting tasks completed.  On the other hand, you have to learn to delegate effectively to make sure that you don't take on more than you can handle.

 Role models are a great help in leadership situations.  Leadership role models are people who are already in a position of authority that you look up to and hope to be like.

 An interesting paper by Crystal Hoyt, Jeni Burnette, and Audrey Innella in the February, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores the influence of people's beliefs about leadership on the effectiveness of role models. 

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 I have written often in this blog about the effect of two types of beliefs about psychological qualities that comes from the research of Carol Dweck and her colleagues.  One set of beliefs is that psychological properties are fixed talents.  The other is that these properties are skills that can be learned.  It turns out that some people think leadership is a talent that is relatively fixed while others think it is a skill that can be acquired.  The more that a person thinks that leadership is a skill to be acquired, the greater the positive influence of role models on her behavior.

 In one study testing this idea, participants were given a questionnaire to test how strongly they believed that leadership is either a fixed talent or a learnable skill.  Next, participants wrote an essay.  Some wrote about a leadership role model who was important to them.  Others (in a control condition) wrote about a vacation.  Finally, participants were asked to take on the role of leader in a group experiment.  They had to imagine they were a recruiting manager of a company and had to teach the other members of their group about how to evaluate resumes of potential employees.  They were given information to help them prepare the presentation.  Then, they gave the presentation over a webcam.  Finally, people rated their confidence in their leadership performance and their anxiety at taking on this leadership role.

 People's confidence benefitted from thinking about a role model only when they believed that leadership is a skill to be learned.  People who believed that leadership is a skill were more confident when they wrote about a role model in their lives than when they wrote about a vacation.  People who believed that leadership is a talent were about equally confident regardless of whether they wrote about a role model or a vacation.

 The anxiety results were interesting as well.  People who believe that leadership is a talent actually got more anxious when thinking about a role model than when thinking about a vacation.  That is, when you think that leadership is a talent, then thinking about a role model may highlight the ways that you do not measure up to that role model.  That may highlight the ways in which your leadership skills are lacking. 

 A second study found similar results, but manipulated people's beliefs about leadership by having them read an article that either suggested leadership is a fixed talent or that leadership is a learnable skill.

 Ultimately, leadership (like almost every other cognitive ability) is something that can be learned and improved.  Thus, you should engage with your role models to help to learn the skills that they have.  In addition, you should treat the leadership skills you don't yet have as a challenge rather than as a sign that you will never measure up to the people you admire.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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