Probing Question: Are you a leader or a follower?

Charisma—Martin Luther King, Jr., had it. Joe Paterno, Bill Gates and Meg Whitman all have it, too. Whether from the pulpit, the sidelines or the boardroom, each of these leaders have relied in part on charisma to inspire their organizations and achieve great success.

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In the corporate world, leadership talent is such a hot commodity that it is worth an expensive fight: Google, Microsoft and Motorola are all involved in mega-lawsuits over enticing away executives from each other's companies. Today's businesses face a leadership drought: 77 percent of companies say they don't have enough qualified employees to succeed their most senior managers, according to a recent survey from Right Management Consultants.

Those who can lead have the world at their fingertips. So how can you tell if you are a leader or follower?

First of all, says David Day, a Penn State psychology professor who has studied leadership for nearly 20 years, you're not one or the other. You can fulfill both roles even in the same situation.

"Leadership is a dynamic process, not a position," says Day. "The kinds of challenges organizations face today are too complex for any one individual to figure out. The day of the superhero leader who figures everything out for everyone else is gone."

For example, whenever those perceived as followers in a group do something that helps set direction, build commitment, or align the group with a larger mission, they are leaders, says Day. Even the seemingly passive act of listening to someone is a leadership skill, Day explains. "People who feel heard are more likely to embrace a concept or company. Listening builds commitment."

"We have pre-conceived notions," continues Day, "that leaders are always out in front directing the band, but the process is much more complex, and it really involves everybody on the team."

Nevertheless, some people surface as visible leaders. What qualities do they share? Charisma is one that is easy to spot. You know it when you see it. Some people magically draw others to them, says Day.

Size matters, too. On the playground, the biggest kids tend to dominate the others. But there is so much more to real leadership, says Day. Would-be leaders often fail because they relied too much on bullying people physically or psychologically. "Leadership in the adult world requires a lot more than being the biggest, baddest hombre," asserts Day. "It depends upon influencing others through interpersonal processes and also working through even more abstract processes like dialogue."

Natural leaders tend to be competent, self-confident and socially assertive, Day adds. They also tend to be able to get along with just about anybody in any group. Known as "social chameleons," these folks adjust to meet the expectations of the important people around them, he clarifies. They are also known as interpersonally flexible and "high self-monitors," a term for those who readily adapt their behavior to external cues. On the flip side, low self-monitors tend to have a strong set of internal values and resist changing to please someone else.

When it comes to finding success and moving up in the business world, the social chameleons have the edge. To find out what personality traits help people make career advancements, Day and colleague Martin Kilduff, tracked the early careers of 139 Cornell MBA graduates for five years. As they reported in the Academy of Management Journal, Day and Kilduff found that the high self-monitors generally were more likely to get promotions, change companies and make geographical moves than individuals characterized as low self-monitors.

Whether you're a high or low self-monitor, self-awareness and honest feedback are the keys to improving your leadership skills, says Day. He suggests using a technique called 360-degree feedback as part of a leadership development program or on one's own.

"The point is to get other people's perspectives on you as a leader and then try to reconcile them with your self-perception," Day explains. "If there are large discrepancies between how you see yourself and how others see you that's a big red flag," says Day.

Your success is doomed if subordinates don't think they can trust you, no matter how honest you are, because they won't go above the call of duty, he says. But if others have confidence in your judgment and you can work with just about anybody, you've got what it takes to lead.

David V. Day, Ph.D. is professor of psychology and a member of the oversight board for the Center for Leadership Development at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine. He can be contacted at dvd1@psu.edu. Martin Kilduff, Ph.D., professor of Organizational Behavior in the Smeal College of Business, can be reached at mxk6@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 13, 2006