What traits do employees, voters, and other followers identify as leadership traits?
Control. People want to follow leaders who can control others and their environment. They do not want to follow people who cannot lead others or maintain stability. Consider two twin sisters, one who is a chief executive officer of a company, and the other who does not have any direct reports. The sister who is CEO seems more like a leader because she already has followers and can control them. Her twin sister has exactly the same management and leadership aptitude but appears to be less of a leader because she does not already exercise control over others.
In the real world, control is often an illusion. There is rapid change, especially in the business world, and much of this change cannot be predicted. Convincing others that you are in control is a powerful way to be recognized as a leader, but any control you have could quickly vanish. Managers who wish to be leaders should try to create the image of control but should privately know that they have less control than they communicate to others.
Competency. People want their leaders to be smarter and more capable than themselves. They want them to be masters of many areas. To be perceived as a leader, a manager should showcase skills and abilities to inspire respect among followers.
To be clear, this is all about perception management. It is not reasonable to expect that managers are competent in a dozen areas while also being full-time managers. Instead, managers should seize opportunities to show off abilities on occasion.
Consistency. People follow leaders who are consistent in their opinions and strategies. Changing one’s mind or adjusting strategies is often thought to be a weakness.
It is important to note that managers should cultivate a perception of consistency but should also recognize that being inconsistent is okay. Considering alternatives, correcting mistakes, and admitting when you are wrong are wonderful, rational behaviors. People should evaluate their past positions and improve upon them if they can. Unfortunately, followers will often view this as weakness. As a result, a manager should try to communicate changes in strategy or opinion in ways that make them sound more consistent and do not make them sound like they changed their minds on a whim.
Certainty. People view leaders who are certain in their views as being trustworthy. Followers are drawn to individuals who make more extreme statements than those who make more moderate statements.
This is really unfortunate because life is messy and often the truth can be messy and hard to summarize. People are drawn to black and white statements even in a world of shades of grey. Managers who hope to be thought of as leaders should cautiously select ways to sound more sure of themselves, but in private they should consider alternatives and recognize that the world is messier than simple statements.