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Thought Leaders and How They Emerge by Philip Hesketh

Philip Hesketh

Philip Hesketh

Whenever people are formed into a group before long a natural leader emerges. You only have to watch an episode of Big Brother or The Apprentice to witness this happening. There’ll be one person who either takes the initiative in a task and organises the troops, or in the case of Big Brother, steals a house mate’s underwear and runs around the room wearing them on his head. And it’s the same with business teams. Minus the exhibitionism, obviously.

Even if members of a team are all at the same level, without a recognised ‘boss’ a leader emerges. Why is this?

Research suggests that leaders emerge through a combination of their own outspoken behaviour, and how this is perceived by others. In two studies at the University of California the behaviour of dominant individuals and how they were perceived by others was closely observed. Naturally there was no shortage of candidates in Tinsel Town. Also not unnaturally, their research showed a big gap between the actual competence of leaders and the way in which they are perceived by others.

In the second study participants attempted to solve a series of maths problems in competition with another group. The groups were videotaped and the behaviour of their members carefully examined. They found that dominant participants tended to offer more suggestions to the group and were thus perceived as the most competent. Crucially, though, the study revealed that their dominant behaviour encouraged others to see them as competent even when their suggestions were no better. Their voice was simply heard longest and loudest – and usually believed. A bit like insisting that a country has weapons of mass destruction then discovering they don’t.

Of course, outside the laboratory, money and power has more to do with who leads organisations like corporations or nations. Who ‘leads with their thoughts.’

In reality, groups of people don’t start on egalitarian terms and people don’t always ’emerge’ from groups of their peers on the basis of who shouts loudest and longest. Again, witness reality TV shows to see this in action. The long-time favourite often gets booted out before the end when viewers tire of their dominant behaviour and see little return for it.

Personally I don’t think it’s about the quality of comments that people make, but rather the quality of their questions that demonstrates to others the validity of their contribution. So if you are in a group and want to lead, ask Socratic questions. If you don’t know what they are look them up on the internet. It could be one of the best searches you ever made.

Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and influence and author of the Amazon number one best selling book, ‘How to Persuade and Influence People’. He is Visiting Fellow at Newcastle University in England.

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