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How Do We Know What Leadership Looks Like?

In our first post in this series we established that we need to consider both the practical and theoretical when reviewing leadership concepts. Now we are looking to understand what leadership really looks like. Perhaps serendipitously, the last few issues of Harvard Business Review (HBR) have had many articles on leadership, and there have been several recent articles in the psychology journals as well. Given these starting points, we can definitely say that there is more than enough info to start getting our hands dirty on this concept.

One of the more interesting practical articles comes from Kevin Sharer who was the CEO of Amgen for more than a dozen years. For those not familiar with Amgen, it is large pharmaceutical firm that has shown significant growth over the past decade. Sharer points out that he expected leaders at Amgen to act as role models, deliver results in the right way, empower diverse teams, and motivate others with an implementable vision (2013). One thing they should not do is imitate some flavor-of-the-moment leadership trend that may or may not have any value. In other words he expected them to act like true leaders, not imitators of fads. I think we can all agree that that approach does not make for good leadership.

In an earlier issue of HBR, Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger discuss the great debate about whether it is better for a leader to be feared or loved, assuming that they can’t be both (2013). These authors posit that it is more important to be loved and trusted because without trust there is the risk trepidation, resentment and envy from those that you are meant to lead. Despite what some Theory X managers may claims, having a staff that exhibits these traits is not effective in the long term. So how does a leader build this trust? Cuddy and her coauthors discuss a number of practical approaches including body language to help the reader understand how to literally look like a warm and trustworthy leader. Simple little things like standing with your arms open and chin up, or sitting in a position that shows interest in a non-threatening way, and even just smiling can go a long way towards making us look like leaders. This of course begs the question of how do we know if someone who looks like a leader really is an effective leader.

Some people put forward that we can assess the effectiveness of leaders based on how well the organization is doing. If the organization’s stock price and revenues are going up, then we can assume that an organization has good leaders. Of course we only have to look at the behaviors of the people who led Enron and the scandal around Bernie Madoff to see that organizations that appear to be performing may not have the best leaders. On the other hand we can look at the article by Rupprect, Waldrop, and Grawitch where they compared scores on the General Inventory of Lasting Leadership and the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire to determine how the scores on these measures predicted counterproductive work behaviors (CWB) and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). While these are fairly robust instruments, they do require some understanding of behavioral science and statistics to properly interpret. So the practical value of using those measures can be called into question.

What is not in question, however, is that all of these descriptions of what leadership looks like deal with the impact of the leader on the group of followers. So maybe our approach should not focus on the leader, but instead on the follower. Perhaps the best way to determine if someone is an effective leader is to just ask those that they are supposed to be leading. May not be as flashy or rigorous as some of the other approaches, but should be just as accurate. 


Cuddy, A. C., Kohut, M., & Neffinger, J. (2013). Connect, then lead. Harvard Business Review, 91(7), 54-61.

Rupprecht, E. A., Waldrop, J. S., & Grawitch, M. J. (2013). Initial validation of a new measure of leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice And Research, 65(2), 128-148. doi:10.1037/a0033127.

Sharer, K. (2013). How should your leaders behave?. Harvard Business Review, 91(10), 40.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard. 

He can be reached at or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd