Illustration of an owl leading a diverse group of animals
5-second summary
  • Many of the principles held by great leaders neutralize cognitive biases.
  • Other principles are effective because they help leaders build trust and inspire others.
  • Spoiler alert: narcissism is nowhere to be found on our list.

Some people are born leaders, in the sense that they instinctively know how to rally others to their side. Others fall into positions of power, and fail miserably because they aren’t guided by the leadership principles that would make them effective. (Consider the disappearance of hereditary monarchies as a form of government, if you will.)

The rest of us have to rely on a combination of art and science when it comes to earning our position as leaders and developing our leadership skills. Fortunately, there’s a large body of work in the fields of sociology and psychology that can help us compensate for whatever instincts we lack.

Let’s look at how some legendary leaders embody these principles, whether they were doing so consciously or not.

Forgive, even if you don’t forget

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi is best known for his pioneering use of nonviolent resistance to catalyze change, and a key facet of this tactic is forgiveness. It’s what enabled him to keep moving forward after every brutal police action, every law passed further limiting the rights of Indians in their own country. Gandhi never resorted to physical force against his oppressors. Instead, he brought them to the negotiating table time after time until India gained independence.

Why it works

You don’t have to banish the conflict from your memory, but if you can do the (very difficult) work of letting it go, you’ll be better off. Without the burden of those stressful feelings, you’re likely to experience less anxiety and higher self-esteem, according to researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That can make you more persuasive, thanks to a psychological phenomenon known as the “confidence heuristic” – a mental shortcut, validated by research, that nudges us in the direction of confident people. Plus, being the one who forgives positions you as “the adult in the room” and earns respect.

How to act on it

Disagreements with colleagues – sometimes passionate disagreements! – can and will happen. But chances are, you have a lot more in common with them than not. Pick one shared goal that you can work toward together to bring everyone back to the table, even if you’re not yet ready to fully forgive. Focusing on the work will speed up the healing process and move you closer to your goals.

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Consider the whole, including the parts you don’t like

“I’m brutally honest. I always look at things from their point of view as well as mine.” – Indra Nooey

Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooey knows a little something about looking at the bigger picture. She led the organization’s global strategy for over a decade, including a major restructuring, acquisitions, and divestitures. All of these forced her to make unpleasant choices so the business as a whole could thrive.

Why it works

Considering the big picture, warts n’ all, helps you avoid a cognitive bias known as loss aversion. Research has suggested that loss is twice as potent from a psychological perspective as gain is. Therefore, you can fall into the trap of rejecting a promising idea simply because it would involve losing something that you treasure. By acknowledging the full set of trade-offs, you set yourself up to make better decisions.

How to act on it

Leading even small-scale change requires holistic, dispassionate thinking. Next time you’re faced with a tough and/or high-impact decision, gather information and recommendations from a variety of sources. Ask for data. Ask both promotors and detractors to present their arguments. And set a deadline for making the decision so you don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis.

Embrace respectful dissent

“I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” – Abraham Lincoln

How to use a democratic leadership style without succumbing to ‘majority rules’

It wouldn’t be a leadership article without Abraham Lincoln, amiright? Aside from, y’know, keeping his country together, ol’ Abe is known for being into diversity of thought before it was cool. He assembled a cabinet and group of advisors whose views differed from his own, knowing that if you can start from a place of divergence and still manage to develop a solution, that solution will be stronger. Working together as a leadership team, they debated questions like the wording and timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slavery illegal under federal law.

Why it works

Whether you call it creative friction, divergent thinking, constructive criticism, or something else, dissent can slow your organization down. But the reward for your patience is big. Along with fewer do-overs, making space for respectful disagreement builds loyalty and engagement. Research shows people will be more likely to accept as valid and commit to decisions they disagree with if they had a chance to state their case before it was made.

How to act on it

Don’t just passively allow people to express dissenting opinions – actively invite them. Reach out to people you’ve disagreed with in the past and ask for their feedback on a new idea. And when a dissenting opinion arrives uninvited, publicly thank that person for taking the time to offer their perspective.

Never stop listening and learning

“Trust and listen to your team. This has helped me become a more effective leader. I am still learning.” – Ursula Burns

Just because you’re in charge doesn’t make you the smartest person in the room. Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, as smart as she is (and she is very, very smart), leaned on the expertise and wisdom of her staff. For example, when Xerox acquired Affiliated Computer Services, the cultures of the two organizations were quite different. To navigate the transition into a unified workforce, she spoke with people from both sides about which aspects of the cultures were most valued. That helped her understand how much they could change without losing employees’ hearts and minds.

Why it works

By staying curious and listening to your team members, you interrupt confirmation bias – the tendency to see new information in a way that confirms what you already believe. The trouble with confirmation bias is that prevents you from taking in valuable information, which impedes your ability to make sound decisions. Which, in turn, makes your leadership less effective.

How to act on it

As with embracing respectful dissent, inviting a diverse array of opinions is a good start. You can also delegate decisions down to the lowest level possible and give your team members “stretch assignments” that will challenge them. Both acts demonstrate trust and confidence in your team.

Reject zero-sum thinking

“A company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders.” – Larry Fink

Our business brains are riddled with concepts like “competition” and “winning.” But one party’s gain doesn’t have to mean another party’s loss. Win-win thinking is at the heart of the growing stakeholder capitalism movement and its poster child, BlackRock, Inc. CEO Larry Fink. He views the old-school obsession with increasing shareholder value (often at the expense of workers and/or consumers) as a short-sighted, lose-lose proposition because a business cannot thrive unless its employees and customers are also thriving.

Why it works

Defaulting to zero-sum thinking is not only a logical fallacy but also detracts from your strength as a leader. Leaders who are hyper-competitive are increasingly seen as toxic. They make those around them feel anxious and inadequate. Not exactly a recipe for bringing out the best in people and developing their skills. Conversely, seeking solutions that benefit everyone involved earns you respect and motivates your team by giving them a sense of purpose.

How to act on it

Remember who you’re actually in competition with (your company’s competitors) and who you’re not (people in your own company). Don’t engage in office politics when it comes to getting your projects funded or angling for that juicy assignment. Offer arguments that paint you in a good light, but stop short of putting others down. And if a decision doesn’t go your way, accept it gracefully. As long as the business is winning out there in the marketplace, you’re winning too.

Build coalitions

“None of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation-building, for the birth of a new world.” – Nelson Mandela

Finding people whose interests align with your own and working to advance those interests is the essence of politics (America’s divisive political landscape notwithstanding). As Nelson Mandela can attest, the bigger the change you’re trying to lead, the more likely you’ll need to seek a coalition – especially if that change is controversial. Upon becoming President of South Africa just a few years after apartheid was legally dismantled, Mandela faced the unenviable task of dismantling it in the cultural sense and uniting his country. He used the language of unity – we, us, our – in his public addresses to help normalize the idea of racial harmony. He even invited his former prison guards to his inauguration ceremony.

Why it works

For the most part, it’s a numbers game: if a critical mass of people wants the same thing, then that thing will happen. But we shouldn’t discount the psychological element. Again, people are more likely to be champions for ideas that they helped develop. And if your coalition pulls in people from diverse groups that oppose each other on other matters, that projects strength and inspires others to commit to your idea.

How to act on it

When you have an idea that involves some risk or is just different from the way you’ve always done things, take the time to secure buy-in from your stakeholders. As your coalition grows, it’ll become harder and harder to undermine you.

Lead with courage in the face of the unknown

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Fearlessness is like a muscle. The more I exercise it, the more natural it becomes not to let my fears run me.” – Arianna Huffington

As a founder of two major business ventures, a candidate for California governor, and author of 15 books, Arianna Huffington has a wee bit of experience with setting off in a new direction. Each of these endeavors was a calculated risk involving taking action based on incomplete information and educated guesses, with people’s livelihoods riding on every decision.

Why it works

It takes courage to be open about what you know versus what you’re working to find out. It takes courage to make decisions based on incomplete information. Heck: it takes courage just to ask for advice. But when you do, the combination of bravery and intellectual humility you display builds trust with the people you’re leading. It also fosters psychological safety, because you’re sending a message that it’s OK to not have all the answers. This, in turn, promotes employee engagement and encourages others to admit mistakes early when they’re easiest to address.

How to act on it

Be candid about what you don’t know yet, and ask others to help you figure it out. You’ll not only get stronger support for whatever decision you land on, but you’ll get the benefit of multiple perspectives, which compensates for your blind spots.

7 proven leadership principles and the psychology behind them