By Emily Reynolds
What does it mean to you to be a good leader? Tons of charisma? Be intelligent? Promote fairness and participation in the workplace? Regardless of what combination of traits you value, your vision of good leadership is likely to be different from that of your coworker or manager, who himself has a very personal vision of who he wants to be at work.
A new study by Remy E. Jennings of the University of Florida and colleagues, published in Personnel Psychology, takes a close look at this individualized idea of leadership – our “best possible leadership self”. Focusing and thinking about this best possible self every morning could help us act more like a guide in the here and now.
Attendees were 54 students (mostly white men) enrolled on a weekend MBA course in the United States and selected because they were likely to seek leadership. All participants were in the intervention condition for five days and in the control condition for five days.
In the intervention condition, participants were asked to write specifically each morning to respond to the prompt to “think about their best self in a leadership role at some point in the future. Imagine everything went as well as it could for you. Think of this as the achievement of the best possible guide you can ever hope for. “During this time, participants were also asked to reflect on positive traits, useful skills, and achievements that they believed possible and this could help them become that best leader possible.
Instead, in the control condition, the participants wrote about three neutral objects that described their car, objects in their office, or sights they saw on their way to work. The positive and negative effects were measured under both conditions.
The rest of the day was the same under both conditions. In the afternoon, a follow-up survey looked at “helping” behaviors, asking participants whether they looked after or helped someone at work, or encouraged or valued colleagues, and “visionary” behaviors: whether or not the participants had talked about future opportunities strategic goals during their day.
In the evening, the participants finally responded to two measures. When taking a look at the leader’s identity, participants had to indicate the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “Today I showed the characteristics of a leader”. The other invited her to describe her day in her own words and was later examined for high levels of expertise and confidence.
The results showed that thinking about the leader’s best possible self increased the positive impact of the participants, which in turn was linked to more helpful behaviors and visionary behaviors during the work day. Those who dealt with both helping and visionary behaviors felt more like a leader that day and showed more “clout” – the feeling of high expertise and self-confidence, as measured in the evening survey.
The study suggests that a phase of imagining and reflecting on the best possible leadership self could make people more helpful and confident in their leadership skills. However, there are limitations. First, the small sample size was mostly white men: would such an intervention have the same effects on other groups? Likewise, it’s important not to view the results as a straightforward ticket to success in the workplace. Self-reflection can be beneficial for many, but there can also be systemic factors that work against promotion or increased clout for women, people of color, or others who can be marginalized at work.
It would also be interesting to examine the actual content of the participants’ best possible leadership self. The results of the study suggest that self-reflection of any kind can improve prosocial helpfulness – but what if someone’s best possible leadership self is authoritarian and tough on co-workers, or just focuses on power rather than collectivity or helpfulness? A look at the range of “leadership selves” and their interaction with behavior in the workplace could provide further insight.
– Thinking about the best possible self as a leader: implications for professionals at work
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles