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The Psychology of Leadership

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Leadership is when one person influences a group to come to a common goal as a result, such as hitting the weekly target, signing up as many customers to a call plan as possible or generating interest for a brand on Twitter.

Different theories of leadership exist, such as process or trait leadership. Process leadership theory suggests that leaders influence groups of workers by applying what they know and their skills. Trait leadership is the view that leaders have certain qualities and character attributes that are different from those of other people.

Traits that may influence leadership include the leader’s susceptibility to stress, personality, locus of control and emotional intelligence. It is likely to be both the process and traits which affect how good of a leader a person might be.

There are also different styles of leadership, such as transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire. Transformational style is when a leader motivates the workers to exceed expectations and do the best possible job.

Transactional style is more focused on achievement levels, as opposed to inner motivation and satisfaction and works on the basis of rewards given for good performance. Laissez-faire or “hands-off” style is when a leader provides little direction to the workers, which can be great for highly skilled and self-motivated workers but may not result in low productivity in other situations. The leadership style is likely to alter the productivity of the workers and also the attitude of the workers towards their job and the respect they might have for their leader.


  • Famous type B leader: Richard Parsons, former chairman of Citigroup and the former chairman and CEO of Time Warner; currently on the Board of Directors for the Commission on Presidential Debates. 
  • Suggestion: Perhaps you cannot change your deep personality traits but you can learn new behaviours that mimic a particular personality type You should ‘fake it, till you make it’, that behaves as a particular personality type until you internalise it and, yourself and others start believing that you do indeed possess that type. 

Stress levels

  • Bill Clinton’s coping mechanisms: camping, jogging, reading, playing cards, smoking a cigar
  • Suggestion: Do sports, delegate, prioritise certain tasks over others, and rationalise (think “What is the worst that could happen?” and then prepare for that situation mentally). Review your goals regularly to see if you are on target 

Emotional intelligence

A study showed that NFL players who had a higher level of emotional intelligence were more successful in terms of having good health, interpersonal relationships, not abusing drugs or alcohol, excelling at work and having a high quality of life.

  • Suggestion: To develop a higher EI, you could observe and ask your friends about your attitudes to others, your environment, your reactions to stress, whether you take responsibility for your actions and whether you know how your actions affect others. If any of these areas are lacking, improving in those particular directions would be a good start. 

Locus of control

Locus of control is the belief that people know how much control they have over their lives; locus of control can be internal or external.  Internal locus of control means that individuals think that they control the events in their life. Therefore, they believe that they can change a negative situation or that if they do well at education or in their job, it is the result of their hard work and dedication.

This is the desired locus of control, as it makes people feel in control of their life, which tends to result in a higher likelihood of them being satisfied in life. On the other side of the spectrum (or locus), there is an external locus of control.

This would be a person who attributes all events to external factors. This person will not take any blame or responsibility for negative situations but is likely to blame others, even if they are of their own creation, and will not acknowledge the direct relationship between hard work and positive exam results. 

Research indicates that most leaders have an internal locus of control, and that better performance is achieved by workers who have a leader with an internal rather than external locus of control. Lastly, internal leaders were likely to be highly directed and task-oriented in how they communicated with workers under their control.

A short test on the locus of control

For the statements below, rate your level of agreement (from 1 to 7, where 7 is ‘fully agree’ and 1 is ‘fully disagree’):

  • I try to do things differently to improve my performance.
  • I go to new places and enjoy travelling.
  • When I go to a new restaurant, I order foods I haven’t tried.
  • I volunteer to be the first to learn and do new tasks at work.
  • When people suggest doing things differently, I support them and help bring about change. I don’t make statements like: It won’t work; we’ve never done it that way before, or we can’t do it.

To obtain your locus of control, add up your rating score for all five statements:

31–35: You probably have a strong Internal Locus of Control.

26–30: You probably have an Internal Locus of Control.

21–25: You probably have a tendency toward an Internal Locus of Control.

20: Is the neutral point on this scale.

15–19: You probably have a tendency toward an External Locus of Control.

10–14: You probably have an External Locus of Control.

5–9: You probably have a strong External Locus of Control.

  • Suggestion – To develop an internal locus of control, you could teach yourself to look at what happens and allocate responsibility to it. For instance, you could tell yourself that you decide how you feel, you decide how you view yourself compared to others and that you decide how you think of every event that happens in your life. 

Elizabeth Kaplunov, PhD is a chartered psychologist who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people. 


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