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There are all kinds of leadership styles. Consider President Trump versus Sheryl Sandberg versus the Dalai Lama. But a new study suggests that all leaders seem to share one key trait. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports it's not what you'd expect.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Plenty of books and articles on politics, business, history try to explain what makes a leader. Maybe it's charisma or communication skills or creativity. Micah Edelson is a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.
MICAH EDELSON: Previous research has mostly focused on this kind of - either personality, characteristics of a leader or situations where individuals are likely to lead.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He wanted to look closely at the actual choice someone makes to become a leader.
EDELSON: We don't know much about the process that is happening when you're choosing to lead or follow - when you're faced with this choice to lead or follow.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To explore this, his team had volunteers come to the lab. They were asked about their real-world experience in, say, the military or the Swiss scouts. Then they were divided into small groups and told to play games for money that involved making choices.
EDELSON: And these are choices about uncertain gambles that have some probability of success and potential gains and losses.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Each time, a player could either make the choice alone or defer the decision to a group vote. Now, half the time, the player was told that the choice would affect only his or her own personal winnings. But the other half of the time, the player was told that the choice would affect the entire group's reward. Overall, when the whole group's welfare was at stake, people were more likely to defer to the group.
EDELSON: It's not always that easy to make such a choice. And it's something that could be even a little bit aversive to you - to make a choice that impacts other people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He found that people needed more certainty, less risk before they unilaterally make a choice that affected everyone. But it turns out that wasn't true of people with a lot of real-world leadership experience. Leaders did not change their behavior just because other people were counting on them.
TALI SHAROT: They make decisions for the group in a similar way that they would make for themselves.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tali Sharot is a neuroscientist at University College London, who wasn't part of the study's team. She says these findings, described in the journal Science, seem to make intuitive sense. Maybe leaders are more comfortable making decisions for others since to them it's no different than making decisions for themselves. But at the same time...
SHAROT: It's not something that you'd necessarily think about - that that really distinguished leadership on your own. So it's something that I think we didn't quite know before.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this study can't tell us if this decision-making behavior is why these folks ended up being leaders or if they developed it as a result of their real-world experience. And she says, while this behavior can predict who is likely to be a leader, it says nothing about who will be a good leader. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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