Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Guilt and Leadership

People who feel guilt, but not shame, make good leaders.

Are good leaders born or made?  To some degree, of course, that is a false question. A person’s characteristics may predispose them to want to be a leader and even to have some potential to lead effectively, but there is still a lot of learning that has to be done to become a good leader.

That said, quite a bit of research has begun to explore the personality characteristics that give someone a head start toward being a good leader.

Personality psychologists have identified what they call the “Big Five” dimensions of personality.  Essentially, if you throw a large number of questions about behavior into a survey, there are five broad characteristics that emerge from people’s responses: Openness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, and Extraversion. 

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All of them are associated with leadership to some degree. People who are open to experience, for example, tend to be better leaders than those who are not. Perhaps obviously, people who are conscientious are also better leaders than those who are not so conscientious. People who are emotionally stable are also more effective leaders than those who are not emotionally stable. The other two traits have a more complex relationship with leadership.

Agreeableness is the degree to which a person gets along with others.  A moderate degree of agreeableness is good for leaders, because they have to have some talent at getting along with others. However, leaders who are too agreeable will not tell others things that they do not want to hear. So, high levels of agreeableness are not good for leadership.

Extraversion is the degree to which someone seeks out others and likes to have the spotlight shown on them. Clearly leaders need to be comfortable interacting with others and bringing ideas from a work group to a broader audience. At the same time, a leader who wants the spotlight too much can keep other group members from getting enough credit for their efforts.

Of course, there are lots of other characteristics that define people’s personality beyond these Big Five. A paper in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Rebecca Schaumberg and Francis Flynn explored the influence of people’s proneness to feel guilty on their leadership ability.

These researchers distinguish between two related emotions—guilt and shame. People experience guilt when they have a responsibility that they have failed to live up to. The emotion is focused on the failure. Shame also arises from a failure to live up to a responsibility, but it is self-focused.  People experience shame when they feel like they are a bad person because of their failure.

In one study, guilt and shame were measured using questionnaires in which people were asked to imagine that they had failed at some important task or responsibility. They rated both the degree to which they would feel bad about what happened (guilt) as well as the degree to which they would feel bad about themselves (shame). Participants also filled out a survey to assess the Big Five dimensions.

Several days later, participants came to the lab in groups and performed a series of group activities. In one activity, for example, the group had to imagine that they were developing advertisements for new products. After performing these group activities, participants rated the other group members for their leadership in the activities.

The best predictor of whether people would take a leadership role in this study was the degree to which people tend to feel guilt as a result of failures. The tendency to experience guilt was a more powerful predictor than any of Big Five personality characteristics.  

Why does the tendency to feel guilt play such a significant role in leadership? In another study, participants rated their tendency to experience guilt and shame as in the study just described.  In addition, they rated their sense of responsibility for other people. The participants in this study were students in an MBA program. The measure of leadership in this case came from evaluations done by the leadership center run by the business school where the participants were students. 

As in the study I just described, people’s tendency to feel guilt (rather than shame) predicted the independent ratings of how good a leader they were.  The tendency to feel guilt also predicted people’s sense of responsibility for others. Statistical analyses suggest that guilt influenced the sense of responsibility for others, which in turn affected people’s success as leaders.

Of course, this research does not address the factors that make some people (and not others) feel guilty in the first place. When these factors are better understood, it might be possible to teach other people these skills in order to increase their effectiveness in leadership roles.

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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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