Describe the traits of a great leader and you’ll probably include “charismatic” in your list. After all, leaders are extroverted. Smart. Confident. Inspirational. They’re people who, through force of personality alone, tend to own the rooms they inhabit.
They’re people who, as a result, tend to get promoted into leadership roles.
Because those traits get results.
A recent study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology sought to determine which people get chosen–not selected by superiors, but informally chosen by their co-workers–to be leaders in a variety of workplace settings: in-person teams, virtual teams, and “hybrid” teams (a blend of in-person and virtual interactions).
Not surprisingly, in-person teams tended to choose charismatic, confident, extroverted people as their leaders. (After all, that’s what leaders look like, right?)
Virtual teams choose a different kind of leader. They choose doers: people great at planning. Prioritizing. Staying on task, and helping others stay on task.
At getting things done.
According to the researchers:
There are two pathways to leadership emergence: achievement, a behavioral-based pathway where team members demonstrate functional skills and engage in task-oriented behaviors that help teams accomplish objectives; and ascription, a trait-based pathway where team members project prototypical leadership traits that make them appear leader-like.
In other words, virtual teams choose leaders based on what those people do, not on how they act and what they say. (Which is good news for all the task-oriented, results-oriented, dependable people wondering if all their hard work will ever pay off.)
As the researchers write:
Our key finding is that the importance of ascription and achievement antecedents to leadership emergence varies along the virtuality spectrum. In low virtuality contexts, ascription factors (such as extraversion, conscientiousness, and cognitive ability) carry greater weight relative to achievement factors (such as action and monitoring behaviors) as antecedents of leadership emergence.
But in contexts of higher virtuality, the importance of leadership emergence antecedents shifts away from ascription and toward achievement, and functional behaviors become more valuable markers of leadership status relative to leader traits.
What does that mean to you?
How to Choose the Right Leader
Say you have a leadership opening.
If your workplace is largely virtual, leadership personality traits are less important than competence. (It’s hard to rally the troops when the troops are miles or even continents apart.)
Employees may appreciate occasional inspiration, but what they really need is effectiveness: A boss who keeps everyone organized, on task, focused on goals…and who is quick to respond, communicate, help out, and step in wherever necessary.
That kind of boss will actually inspire virtual employees, because what they care about most is a boss who helps them get results.
If your workplace is largely in-person, leadership personality traits can come into play. Confidence, extroversion, the ability to motivate and inspire…those qualities naturally have a greater impact.
But that doesn’t mean the stereotypical “leader” traits should outweigh competence. Research shows that the best bosses score highly on providing feedback, coaching, mentoring, etc.
But they also know their (stuff), and use that knowledge to get things done. In fact, as those researchers write, “If your boss could do your job, you’re more likely to be happy at work.”
Outgoing, charismatic, confident people tend to be seen as leaders.
But seeming like a leader doesn’t make someone a leader–especially in the eyes of their teams.
What really matters are results–whether a team interacts in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid fashion.
A great sales supervisor is a person who excels at helping people sell more. A great product supervisor excels at helping people create and deliver new products. A great operations supervisor excels at helping people keep the trains running ahead of schedule.
Great bosses have people skills and technical skills.
While your employees will work for whomever you put in a leadership position, given the choice, they would choose the person who helps them get things done.
Which is exactly what you need, too.