The Surprising Quality of the Most Powerful Leaders

The most influential leaders don't need to push people around to get stuff done.

Posted Sep 25, 2020

The Jordan Lab, used with permission
Source: The Jordan Lab, used with permission

Years ago, when I was beginning my writing career, I worked with an editor who routinely asked for my opinion. I had little experience. She had worked in the profession for 20 years. Still, she would ask, “How would you handle this story?” Or, “what do you think about this approach?” 

And then, she would stay quiet and listen to what I had to say.

She wasn’t blustery or bossy. She was a calm, collaborative leader, who didn’t always demand her way, didn’t win every argument. And I worked harder for her than probably anyone else in my career. What I learned from her still influences my work today.

According to a study of fish—now stay with me here—that kind of collaboration and consensus-building might be why our professional partnership was so successful. Why I’m still talking about it two decades later.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Germany and the U.S. studied groups of cichlid fish, the Astatotilpia burtoni. In this species, dominant males control resources, territory, and space, literally pushing others around when necessary to get what they want.

But when it comes to more complex tasks—like the one in the study, which primed some fish to head for food when a light was turned on and noted which fish would follow—it was the subordinate fish, the so-called weaker members, who the others followed most often. The subordinate fish had greater influence than the dominant leaders who pushed others around.

"The same traits that make you powerful in one context can actively reduce your influence in others, especially contexts in which individuals are free to choose who to follow," writes Alex Jordan, the senior author of the study. 

"More aggressive domineering personalities are most often in positions of power, but they may be least effective and have little influence when compared to their consensus-building coworkers."

I’ve been thinking about this—and these fish—ever since I read this study last month. I'm nerdy like that. But, in every system—including my family and friendships—some people are more assertive and dominant. Though the traits are sometimes linked to a negative management style, the attributes can be powerful when it comes to motivating people and getting stuff done.

But, when it comes to staying focused and coming together to push through a challenge, to build the collaborative team needed to function well and improve despite adversity, those who adopt a less in-your-face approach might be the most effective.

I am the more assertive voice in our family. I talk the most. Do the most planning and coordination and I tend to verbalize much of what I’m thinking—good or bad. My husband, while he is friendly, is quieter and slower to share his opinions. He is not heavy-handed or domineering. So, when he does share a preference, we pretty much do it his way. He wields great influence through his thoughtful approach. 

I’m practicing this wait-and-see style more often now too. Learning to listen better. Pausing to think before I answer. Realizing, not everything requires my input or opinion. And that collaboration, particularly in family and friendships—really in any group where you need to come together to get through—makes things better for all.

Now that we are spending more time as a family—living, working, schooling from the same three rooms—I’m recognizing I don’t need to be pushy to get things done. Don’t need to overtalk it to be understood. 

Communication happens in the quiet moments too. And, you aren't much of a leader if few want to follow you even when their meal is on the line. 

I think of this study and these fish now, when I ask my daughter to put in a wash. When I want to encourage action or ideas. I’ll think of this when I'm looking for leadership in my own groups. When I vote. I’m turned off by the noisier candidates. I’ll think of this too when I work with editors and reach out to readers. 

Like the fish, I imagine we all work better when we aren't pushed around, but when we are hungry for leadership, ready to be guided and led by people who respect others and leave room for others to collaborate and share. For other voices to be heard.  

"Effective communication requires the presence of a diversity of voices, not just the loudest," Jordan says. "Our results from a natural system show that allowing alternative pathways to positions of power may be useful in creating stronger advisory, governmental, and educational structures."