A surprising trait that distinguishes leaders from everyone else

There's no shortage of advice about how to be a better leader. But a new study led by Micah Edelson, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, suggests there's one trait all leaders share: the willingness to make decisions on behalf of a group.

Edelson and his team conducted the study with participants holding various levels of leadership experience. The researchers asked participants to play a series of games in which they could make risky decisions to earn rewards. Participants first played these games under the condition that their gambling only affected their own winnings, and then again under the condition that their gambling affected the winnings of the entire team.

The researchers found that most participants tended to avoid making decisions on behalf of the entire team, and they preferred to be certain of an outcome before making decisions that affected others. But some participants—those who, coincidentally, served as leaders in real life and scored high for leadership traits—were willing to make risky decisions regardless of who was affected by their choices.

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Edelson suggests that a person's decision-making behavior could determine whether that person becomes a leader or not. "It's not always that easy to make such a choice, and it's something that could be even a little bit aversive to you, to make a choice that impacts other people," Edelson explains. "And there are some people that seem to be able to do it; some people don't."

But the researchers acknowledge that the opposite might be true: leader-style decisions may be a byproduct of certain participants' leadership experience.

The researchers also acknowledge that this decision-making behavior is a shared characteristic of all leaders, not just good leaders. "What this paper shows is that all these types of individuals, all these types of leaders, have something in common," says Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London.

You might be surprised by the study's conclusion that leadership comes down to a certain kind of decision-making, the researchers acknowledge. "Previous research has mostly focused on these kinds of either personality characteristics of a leader, or situations where individuals are likely to lead," Edelson says. Previous studies have identified the key qualities of leaders as traits like communication skills and willingness to accept feedback.

"It works with our intuition, but in the same way it's not something that you'd necessarily think about that distinguishes leadership," Sharot says (Greenfieldboyce, NPR, 8/2).

Related: The 10 highest-impact habits of effective managers


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