Over the centuries and into the modern day, writers and commentators have argued over whether good leaders are born or made, and whether physical skills and traits are more important than intelligence and personality. What is perhaps strange is that it is so difficult to isolate and categorise the key features of leadership and to identify the traits that make for good leaders. Writers on leadership seek the essence of leadership and whether it is possible to identify the characteristics of the effective leader.

The management writer, Warren Bennis identifies four critical aspects of leadership:

  1. Adaptive capacity – For Bennis, this is most essential and central aspect of leadership. It means a sense of resilience and creativity, seizing opportunities and learning to learn.
  2. The capacity to engage followers in shared meaning to align the organisation and its employees around a common, meaningful goal – providing a clear vision of where the organisation is going.
  3. Learning their own voice – Leaders learn how they affect other people and discover emotional intelligence (the capacity to manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others).
  4. A moral compass – Leaders need to develop and maintain a set of principles, a belief system and a set of convictions.

According to new research conducted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, managers who tend to feel guilty make some of the best business leaders, because a guilty conscience is simply the hallmark of a natural leader. The Stanford study reveals that guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, which in turn makes others see them as leaders. The research carried out by Becky Schaumberg and her colleague Professor Francis Flynn, began with the observation that within organizations there are always some people willing to take on the tasks that others won’t, or take charge of groups that no one else will.

To find out what motivates these types of individuals they conducted a series of personality tests that measured traits such as guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion, among others. Even though guilt and shame may seem similar to most people, psychologists argue that there is a crucial distinction between the two.

“Shame often makes people shy away from problems, whereas guilt makes people approach them,” said Schaumberg, “shame can also lead to anger and blaming others for problems, whereas guilt leads people to take personal responsibility for problems.”  

Following the personality tests, the researchers put each group in a lab and, without designating a leader, had them perform two group tasks, such as outlining a marketing campaign for a new product. In all of the groups, those who were most likely to be judged by others as the group’s leaders also scored highest in guilt proneness on the personality test.

The research concluded that guilt proneness is a better predictor of emerging leadership than other measures, such as extraversion.  Guilt-prone managers generally take charge and make more effort to ensure that the voices of team members are heard, leading to more positive discussion and shared vision. In the real-world setting, the study found a strong link between a participant’s guilt proneness and the extent to which others saw the person as a leader.

The key seems to be that although guilt feels unpleasant to the individual, it can be quite beneficial for the group, causing people to do what’s good for the group at personal cost, according to the study. The research shows those who harbour the most guilt also do what’s good for the organisation at the expense of other employees. The study revealed that guilt-prone managers were more likely to support layoffs to keep a company profitable.

While there are many ways of responding to mistakes or problems, including blaming others or yourself, Schaumberg said the most constructive response, and the one people seem to recognize as a sign of leadership, is to feel guilty enough to want to fix the problem.

There are, however, costs and consequences related with guilt. The Stanford study tended to concentrate on the positive side of guilt, but the suggestion may be that there are opportunity costs in terms of family, where leaders spend too much time at work and not with their families. Nor was a simple solution to poor leadership an attempt to induce guilt as this is unlikely to be successful.

There are many other studies and surveys on leadership traits, personalities and styles. According to a recent poll of executives ranging from mid-level leaders to chief executive officers, carried out by Owens and Heckman published in the Academy of Management Journal and reported in the journal Organizations Science (August, 2012), bosses who exercised humility in leadership were seen as being more effective, since they appeared to be more human and were not seen as holding all the answers. This research, confirms other research studies which show that employees with humble bosses demonstrated lower labour turnover.  However, one other finding is that, in the context of business, humility and perceived competence are strongly related. If a leader is perceived to be competent, than an act of humility is perceived positively; but if the leader hasn’t yet proved his/her competence, than humility is viewed less favourably.

There are many factors which can influence the leadership styles and success, which include:

  • The leader’s personality – this is normally set and unlikely to radically alter. So, a dominant individual will tend to be more autocratic, than someone who listens carefully to others. If the business wants to change direction, then it will probably have to look for a new leader.
  • The leader’s skills and abilities – much of what a leader can achieve will rest on their ability to illustrate sufficient skill and charisma. Respect and loyalty normally have to be earned and as we have seen in the styles of leadership section different individuals go about achieving these in different ways.
  • The circumstances – some rise during a crisis, whilst others are better in less chaotic circumstances.
  • The business culture – the ways in which a business is run can also affect what style of leader it works best under. Some prefer a more open, consultative way of doings things, whilst other use a more autocratic way of running affairs.
  • The task – the nature of the task, such a highly technical one, might also determine who leads and how.


IB Style questions

1. Distinguish between leadership traits and leadership styles.
2. Explain the view that guilt-proneness helps promote good leadership.
3. Examine the link between good management and good leadership.
4. Evaluate the effectiveness of various styles of leadership and their implications for organisations.