Research Highlights

How to Be a Leader

However, in addition to [expertise, charisma and physical appearance], having the right mindset, even just temporarily, can be an important determinant of who achieves leadership in organizational settings.

The paths to leadership can be many – expertise, charisma, and even, perhaps unfortunately, physical appearance. However, in addition to these stable individual traits, having the right mindset, even just temporarily, can be an important determinant of who achieves leadership in organizational settings, according to encouraging new research by NYU Stern Professor Gavin Kilduff. And the right mindset is a simple matter of preparation.

From the Ephemeral to the Enduring: How Approach-Oriented Mindsets Lead to Greater Status,” a paper Kilduff co-wrote with Columbia Business School Professor Adam Galinsky, could easily form the basis of a new self-help best-seller for management trainees and aspiring leaders everywhere.

The right mindset – something anyone can cultivate – gives people the confidence to speak with authority, say the authors. Their research studies showed that the hallmarks traditionally thought to confer leadership status –appearance, gender, race, or personality – were not necessarily determinative and could be overcome by those who prepped themselves properly for group interaction.

Specifically, people who “primed” their mindsets prior to a meeting exhibited more or less power, proactivity, and confidence, depending on the nature of this pre-group preparation. Individuals who undertook a simple writing exercise about a situation where they had felt happy or wielded power over someone subsequently exhibited greater proactivity and confidence, and as a result, achieved higher leadership and status within their groups (who worked on collaborative decision-making tasks). Furthermore, this status advantage persisted beyond the initial meetings, even though these individuals were never ‘re-primed’ – underscoring the importance of initial group interaction to determining enduring patterns of behavior.

Conversely, if the preparatory writing exercise focused on negative situations, where they were powerless or were in a sad situation, their confidence and leadership behavior within the group was vastly diminished, and their status within the evolving hierarchy reflected that.

Kilduff concluded, “One implication is that individuals may be able to achieve significantly higher status than their stable characteristics would predict if they can successfully adjust their psychological states or behavior during initial group interaction.” In other words, prior to meeting new teammates or coworkers, take five minutes to psych yourself up and you can expect to achieve higher standing within these new groups.

Gavin Kilduff is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations.