Thursday, 01 December 2022 06:00

5 red flags to watch when assessing leadership potential

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Once upon a time, picking the right leaders was easy. Most notably, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small groups where everybody knew each other really well, and most of the critical leadership skills were easily observable: physical strength, dexterity, courage, and speed.

It was also rather costly to pick the wrong leader. You would probably end up beaten, killed, or eaten, as opposed to just changing jobs or moving to a different country.

Fast-forward 200,000 years, and things are a great deal more complex. For starters, the critical leadership qualities that enable some individuals to effectively coordinate collective activity, turning a group of people into a high performing team, are rather abstract and hard to observe with the naked eye: strategic thinking, curiosity, humility, integrity, and technical expertise. You can typically gauge the last in others only when you possess it in similar amounts to them.

Add to this the fact that we are typically asked to detect whether strangers, and people who we rarely meet or interact with, actually have these traits. So, for example, modern voters must decide after a televised presidential debate how to vote, and employers often decide whom to promote or appoint into leadership roles based on an interview. 

Our brains push us to rely on our archaic instincts, which makes any objective assessment of leaders the exception rather than the norm. More often than not, we end up picking leaders based on false indicators of potential, which explains the poor performance of leaders in general.

According to scientific estimates, 50% to 60% of managers fail to deliver desired results, not least because they are unable to motivate 64% of their employees. Things are even worse in politics, with typical approval ratings for democratically elected heads of state hovering around 30% to 40%, and disapproval ratings frequently exceeding 60%.

History is replete with catastrophic examples of dictatorial, toxic, and parasitic leaders who inflict irreparable damage on their people. Many start their ascend in democratic ways, continuing to enjoy popular support even as they cease power and restrict public choice, which highlights the importance of picking competent and honest leaders. As an academic review noted: “Ultimately, it is followers who legitimize leaders, empower them, and provide them with the means to attain their visions and goals.” 

An obvious requirement for overcoming this problem is to stop focusing on the wrong traits when we infer leadership potential. These five stand out for their pervasive popularity.


Although confidence is only marginally related to competence, we often interpret it as a sign of leadership potential. Research shows that our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we should is actually motivated by the desire to convince others that we are competent.

So, the more overconfident and deluded you are, the more likely it is that you will fool others into thinking that you are leadership material, explaining the problematic preponderance of leaders who are unaware of their limitations, and unjustifiably pleased with themselves. 


We all love the idea of an inclusive, kind, empathetic leader who inspires through trust and knowledge, bringing others along with their vision, and leading from the front. Why? Because too often what we get is the reverse: tough, despotic, authoritarian leaders who manage with power and coercion, and who get to the top because of their bold bravado and aggressiveness.

The logic is simple: If someone gets to the top through sheer intimidation and force, we should not expect much consideration for followers once they get there. 


Humans are naturally hierarchical. Even in the absence of formal structures, we attribute and perceive different degrees of status and power to different people, which determines their ability to influence others—or lack thereof.

Unfortunately, even in seemingly meritocratic societies status is fueled, not just by talent or merit, but also by privilege, social class, gender, race, and attractiveness. In other words, if you belong to the “in group,” you will stand a greater chance to be perceived and legitimized as leader, and such stereotypes will continue to cloud people’s perceptions of your performance once you are in charge.

By the same token, those who don’t belong to the in-group (“old boys club”) will face an uphill battle, not just to emerge as leaders, but to persuade the prejudiced masses that they actually got theirs through merit. 


Although charisma is not harmful per se, when coupled with incompetence, lack of talent, and especially lack of integrity, it can result in a rather toxic combination and be devastating for others. Think Hitler, Stalin, and Mao who used it to fuel their cult of personality.

This dark side of charisma is hard to resist because we are seduced by its bright side: the warmth, vision, and antiestablishment rhetoric of those who promise to elevate our own status and well-being while pursuing selfish, greedy, and psychopathic goals.  


We seem to not just tolerate but celebrate those who celebrate themselves. Instead of making humility a universal prerequisite for leadership, we gravitate toward those who are their own biggest fans, and who express megalomaniac fantasies of grandeur with unashamed pomposity and self-promotion.

Unsurprisingly, there is a negative correlation between how narcissistic you are, and how well you perform as a leader. Elon Musk may have the talents to back it up, but according to science, he would be more effective if he had some humility. 

an effort to elect and select leaders on the basis of their actual competence, integrity, and humility, we will end up with the right person in charge more often, and the wrong person in charge less often. This has enormous benefits for all. 


Fast Company

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