The Psychological Basis for Leadership

If we really think about it, we rely way too much on the results of personality tests. Whether we take the Myers-Briggs test to find our MBTI results or look to BuzzFeed to see what The Office character we are based on what food we’re in the mood for, we take results from our leisure time and apply them to real life. C’mon now, who hasn’t scrolled through Instagram bios only to see a jumble of letters people have defined themselves with? (sidebar: I took the MBTI test just for this paper and it turns out I am an ENFJ-T, so… take that as you will.)

When we look at personality tests, they always have an undertone of “who are you?” and cueing the existential crisis, we can compartmentalize and determine our personalities into two broad categories: leader vs. follower.

We all probably define leadership in different ways, but we also all probably have similar criteria in defining what a leader is… but of course, none of that matters! Leadership is broadly put for good reason, the skills and behaviors one exhibits differ from person to person. No, what matters is effectiveness… but there are plenty of papers on what makes an effective leader.

Case in point: just look up “what makes an effective leader?” and plenty of results will emerge.

The question that has not been answered; however, is the why?

Why do leaders emerge? Not to discredit human nature, but why do we see a person, or even a group, take control of a scenario?

 As such, we must explore why a leader emerges: is one born a leader or does the right time and place bring out the leader in any of us? 

Leadership has been part of us since the beginning of time… in the most literal sense.  As stated by experts at Regent University, “Leadership, and the study of it, has roots in the beginning of civilization. Egyptian rulers, Greek heroes, and biblical patriarchs all have one thing in common–leadership,” (Stone and Patterson, 2005). In this, we can state the obvious, if a situation calls for it, a leader will emerge.

“Leadership, and the study of it, has roots in the beginning of civilization. Egyptian rulers, Greek heroes, and biblical patriarchs all have one thing in common–leadership”

 Leadership is an effort of influence; it is more than a power dynamic–it is being able to induce compliance. People; however, are always growing–always evolving–specifically through formative years.

In a culture where success is the ultimate goal, it is as if “leader” is synonymous with “success.” This is a formative period where many leave to understand themselves, to open their world view to accept other perspectives and gain insight on what it means to grow: college. College has always been portrayed as “the time to find [ones]self.” With a simple click on a search engine, the words “leadership” and “college” open up a myriad of results. “Tips to Develop Leadership Skills in College,” “Opportunities for Leadership in College,” etc., are all hits that we can view when we decide to search.

We begin to explore our passions and understand where we want to follow our social paths. Just by having an idea of what we want to do in life is enough to be a leader in understanding that we form our own decisions–that we can deviate from the paths that have been set for us. There are plenty of opportunities on and off-campus in considering what it means to be a leader. Here at UD, we have programs such as Peer Mentoring, Peer Tutoring, BHLP, RAILE, etc.

Statistically, everyone has the opportunity to be a leader on some level. Whether it is in the aforementioned educational setting, a research-based setting, a job setting, it all makes sense that we have the choice to lead. The issue at hand is then, why do we not see certain leaders all the time?

Politically, we see leaders such as George Washington, JFK, and Andrew Jackson… but each are synonymous with different terms. George Washington and JFK fall in with positive connotations, whereas Andrew Jackson is treated with complete abhorrence (and rightfully so).

All three had bold visions for the nation, yet execution and vitality of leadership determine the image we create when encountering their names. 

Simply because of our democratic system, we perceive those in political science to be poster children for leadership. As we know, in all areas of life, leaders emerge. Beyond presidents and political leaders, we have teachers, managers, surgeons, coaches–everyone can be considered a leader in one aspect of their life or another. According to King’s College, “everyone, at some point in their life, will be asked to be a leader,” in which leadership is a resource that we need only tap into. (King’s College, 2017).

Opening up to new perspectives, going beyond historical, patriarchal norms, establishes so much more effectiveness in leadership. Diversity is the face of leadership, bringing new people brings upon brand new perspectives and fresh ideas.

The narrative seems to be set on the fact that there is a natural talent in people that pushes them to be leaders. From a narrative standpoint, this claim is not necessarily applicable. We all go through our formative years awkwardly, yet that presents us with challenges and ideas that push us towards who we will evolve into. Who you were in kindergarten is not who you were in high school is not who you will be in adulthood.

“Who you were in kindergarten is not who you were in high school is not who you will be in adulthood. “

Even in modern media, we have personality traits that seem to determine our role as a leader or follower. Going back to the MBTI assessments or BuzzFeed quizzes we take, the results that emerge may satisfy our want to be defined, yet we are not simple checkmarks ticked off on a list. 

 The media may want us to be perceived as such as it is easier to relate to someone who has specific traits presented to us. (Michael from The Office is totally an ENFJ-T leader, change my mind.) Influencers on social media, although not traditional leaders are leaders, nonetheless. Although many of them may not be people we would want to interact with in real life, it is clear that influencers such as the Kardashians, Youtubers, Actors, etc. hold a level of command. Despite screams of “use code [xyz] for 15% off!” it may seem like we have our choices in finding what we want out of this virtual relationship, yet there is a definite power dynamic. We blindly follow a person we have never met before, jumping at the chance to become more connected to them–to become them.

Leadership is not black and white. This is stated many times, yet we still have it in our minds that leadership is ingrained within us, holding a legacy within our prestige, and just something that cannot be learned. Leadership; however, takes on many forms and emerges from plenty of places. It is rather a bell curve full of experiences that shape us. Just look at fight, flight, or freeze? Who is to say how we will act until we are called into action?

We assume that people come into this world with a natural capacity to lead and that due to this we can never do anything more about it. To many, we assume it is the luck of the draw. Looking around us; however, and even in reflecting upon ourselves, we see that everyone will be offered the opportunity to lead. In this, we get our bell curve. Yes, there will be natural-born leaders, and yes there will be people who, no matter how hard they try, are simply not cut out to lead. Yet there is the majority of humanity, people who can be leaders can be made.

Unlike many other versions of the American Dream, leadership is attainable. It may not be on the scale we have always dreamed, yet opportunities will arise each day to allow us to choose our paths. We are not the people we were as children; we have evolved into minds capable of changing the rules and social dynamics. Leadership is never going to be just holding power over someone, but it will always be a chance to explore ourselves and our abilities. With this in mind, the cynical view that leaders are born must go away… after all, it very well may be your name, my name, their name ranked among the leaders of tomorrow.       

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