Two Versions of the Perfect Leader Go Head to Head. Who Triumphs?

By Fast Company expert Blogger, Heidi Grant Halvorson

With all the talk of presidential candidacy in the air, it seems like a good time to revisit an enduring question: What kind of leader do people want? Moreover, what kind of leader should I be if I want to rise to the top?  Research suggests two different and somewhat contradictory answers.

According to one theory, people want a leader who is “one of us.” In other words, they want someone representative of the group or organization to which they belong. Representative leaders draw their power from successfully conveying the sense that they will protect the group’s core values. (This turns out to be particularly desirable in “us vs. them” situations, when one group is competing against or is threatened by another.)  They inspire liking, loyalty, and a sense of connectedness. These are the leaders you “want to drink a beer with.”

Many argue, however, that what people really want is someone exceptional, rather than representative.  They want a bold, charismatic visionary who wants to take the group in a new direction. Visionary leaders don’t blend in; they stand out. They are risk-takers and innovators. They have strongly-held views on what the group should be doing differently. They offer “change you can believe in,” and can be very inspiring.

So, which kind of leader rises to the top? Do people want a leader who focuses on who they are, or who they could be? Psychologists Nir Halevy, Yair Berson, and Adam Galinsky set out to find the answer in a series of new studies, pitting one style of leadership against the other to see which style is generally preferred, and why.

They found, across five studies, that people overwhelmingly prefer visionary leaders–particularly when there is a crisis creating high levels of stress, like a natural disaster, a recession, or looming takeover.

Visionary leaders attracted more followers, made people feel more strongly identified with the group, and inspired more collective action. They also helped group members channel their negative emotions more effectively, and enabled them to find their work more interesting and enjoyable.

For instance, in one study, participants were able to choose from two potential leaders to handle a crisis situation. Those who chose the visionary (but not representative) leader reported an immediate decrease in feelings of fear and helplessness, while those who chose the representative (but not visionary) leader did not–in fact, they felt even worse after making their choice.

In another study, participants were asked to imagine that much of their town had just been destroyed by a fire, and were then given one of two statements from the town mayor. The statement from the representative Mayor talked about being a “proud member of the community,” and stressed the importance of demonstrating “who we are and what we stand for.”  The visionary Mayor wrote that he was “filled with hope for the future, “ and assured the townspeople that “I know where we are headed and I know that we will get there.”

The researchers then asked participants how many hours (from 0-15) per week they thought they would volunteer in response to the mayor’s call to action. Visionary mayors inspired nearly two more hours per week on average than representative mayors.

In their final study, MBA students with a minimum of three years work experience reflected on the last business unit leader they worked under. Those who described that leader as visionary indicated that they were more effective, inspiring, and able to effect change than those who had a representative boss.

So “who we can be” trumps “who we are” when it comes to inspiring action.  Particularly in a time of crisis, people want visionary leaders who will offer up novel solutions.  Of course, as the researchers point out in the conclusion of their paper, we don’t necessarily have to choose one form of leadership over the other. The most effective leader may well be the one who combines aspects of both, by being representative of who the group is now, but visionary with respect to the future–in other words, someone who is one of us, but believes we can become much more.

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