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Read time12 mins

What defines a leader? Biology, behaviour and wellbeing

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One individual, exhibiting exceptional leadership and stands in front of many other employees.

Are leaders born or made? Exploring what makes a leader

Leadership isn’t just about authority – it’s about inspiring others to follow willingly.

Dive into our comprehensive analysis to understand what comprises effective leadership.

Uncover the critical behaviours that set great leaders apart, from building relationships to fostering accountability and empowerment.

With insights drawn from extensive research, we shed light on why leadership is vital for team morale and productivity.

Learn how to harness the power of optimism, support, and facilitation to create a positive work environment.

Take charge of your leadership journey and transform your team dynamics today!

Nature vs nurture: Where do good leaders come from?

Watch the video to understand how good leaders behave, where their abilities come from and the impact that their actions can have on workplace culture and success.

Step 2 - Essential qualities of effective leaders

If you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Leadership in the disability sector

Hi, Andrew from SACS, and welcome to our six-part video series on creating the leaders of the future in the disability sector.

This set of videos was put together in partnership with NDS, and we hope that it will be of benefit to you as you try to create your leaders of the future.

Just to talk about what we’ll be dealing with in this sequence of videos.

The first video, video number one, we’ll deal with the question of what is leadership.

We’ll begin by talking about intrinsic characteristics of leaders.

In other words, are leaders born or made?

This will be about what characteristics good leaders tend to have.

Recruiting future leaders.

Sort of a lead on from point number two, which is intrinsic characteristics of leaders, you can recruit for these.

Video four will be about modelling the leaders of the future.

And just to explain that a little bit more, we’ll be showing you how to identify what are the key characteristics of your successful leaders and how you can build those characteristics into your recruitment process.

We’ll show you a scientific method called high performance modelling that helps you to do this.

Video number five is about disability sector profiles and leadership.

And so what we’ll be doing is we’ll be showing you some things that we know about the disability sector in terms of psychometric characteristics and how they intrinsically relate to leadership.

And video number six will be all about developing the leaders of the future.

What is leadership?

Leadership is an instinctive behaviour of group animals, including primates.

So there are leaders amongst the world of primates, chimpanzees, gorillas, and so forth, but also amongst birds and other types of vertebrates.

And one of the things that we know is that any group task causes the emergence of leaders.

So leaders make things work.

This is a group of chimpanzees.

And for many years, people sought to figure out why certain chimpanzees would end up being leaders.

Now, I don’t know if you know this, but chimps have elections to decide who leads a chimp troop.

And in fact, the thought was that maybe it was the biggest chimp, the strongest chimp, the most aggressive chimp.

In fact, it turns out that the chimp who tends to win the election, and the election is by fighting by the way, and when chimps fight for leadership, the other chimps backing them is the form of leadership.

So if you have a chimp that’s backed by 20 chimps, then that’s likely to win against a chimp that’s backed by two, let’s say.

And that’s pretty much how it works out in the chimp world.

The role of serotonin

But in this investigation of what caused certain chimps to be elevated to leadership, it was discovered by a guy called Richard Arvey and a bunch of other researchers at the time that it was the chimps that had the highest levels of serotonin in their brains.

And so what does serotonin do?

It makes you calm. It makes you reasonable.

So it might seem strange, but the chimps that to leadership were, in fact, the most reasonable chimps.

Now that’s interesting, but Arvey also discovered the same thing in college fraternity presidents.

In other words, people who are elected to lead college fraternities, which are sort of clubs in the US college system, the US university system.

So isn’t that interesting?

Something that applies in the world of chimps applies in the world of humans.

So the key message, though, is that good leaders are calm and assertive.

And that’s a style of leadership that works well, not hysterical leadership, not overly emotional leadership, calm but assertive.

A definition of leadership

And here’s my definition of leadership.

I think that in all of the leadership books that I’ve read over the years, this is the most valuable way to look at it: a leader is a person that people want to follow.

Now, you understand how that differs from management.

A manager is a person who plans things, who delegates things, who writes budgets, but a manager can be a very poor leader in the sense that no one wants to follow that person; but a manager can also be a wonderful leader in the sense that not only does the person have the management capability but people want to follow them.

And, of course, the opposite is true.

You can have a situation where people are terrible managers but very good leaders in the sense that people want to follow them from an interpersonal point of view.

The key things that good leaders do

So true leadership is the interpersonal stuff.

And there’s a number of things that drive this.

You know, one of the things that really determines whether people want to follow you or not is whether you create wellbeing for them.

A good leader is somebody who creates wellbeing.

And this diagram is all about a form of wellbeing called engagement.

Engagement is all about whether people have positive emotions about their work, positive emotions about the team that they belong to, positive emotions about the leader who is leading their team.

And the key driver of all of this is leader behaviours.

And here are ten leader behaviours, which we discovered in a very big research project, 2,700 people across Australia and New Zealand, we measured their levels of engagement, and we measured a bunch of leader behaviours and ten, a nice round number, ended up as being statistically very important.

And they fall into some key categories.

First category is about looking after people, relating to people, having a strong relationship with the people that you lead.

The second category is kind of about accountability.

So it’s about making sure that the right behaviours get delivered in the workplace.

It’s about making sure that the right performances get delivered in the workplace.

So a good leader is somebody who has good relationships with people, can build strong and empathic relationships with them, but also who creates a situation where there is accountability and people know that stuff will get done and their behaviours will be appropriate and positive.

Now, this set of behaviours down here in the bottom right-hand corner, these are the behaviours which proved mathematically to be the most powerful.

So you see these things called beta weights, every single one of these things and a bunch of others that we’re not showing here that didn’t turn out statistically strong, they indicate the strength of relationships.

The top four leader behaviours

So the top four behaviours of leaders to make people want to follow them, the first is to empower people.

Empowering leadership is the single most powerful thing that a leader can do to increase levels of morale, increase levels of energy, and increase levels of engagement.

Engagement can be shown, by the way, to predict things like productivity.

So good leadership is empowering leadership.

The second is the degree to which the leader is optimistic and positive.

So you can bring any emotion to a leadership situation if you’re a leader, as long as it’s positive.

People do not want to follow negative, cynical leaders who don’t really show enthusiasm or positivity.

So positive and optimistic leadership is crucial.

Optimism, not necessarily in the sense of ‘don’t worry, everything will be fine’, because they can easily be inauthentic.

Optimism in the sense of we will cope, whatever comes up, I know that we can get through this.

That’s the kind of optimism we’re talking about.

And in psychology, we call that form of optimism self efficacy, a belief in us as individuals and as a team.

Supportive leadership: good leaders are supportive of their staff, which means that they take care of them, they help them, they try to be liked by them.

And in fact, supportive leadership is really about ensuring that staff are helped in terms of their personal circumstances but also their career development.

A good leader is somebody who will take into account people’s life situation, but also their employment situation, try to build their skills, try to give them a chance to reach the goals that they aspire to as employees.

And the final one is helping people to learn.

So this relates to a thing called passion.

Employers tell me every day that they want passionate employees.

You want passion in your workforce? You need learning.

As people work in a job for a long time, and they’re not dealing with new stuff, they become less passionate.

In fact, measurably, their levels of engagement drop.

And so the reason is that the human brain evolved to be able to deal with challenges.

And so we love to deal with challenges. We love to deal with new stuff.

Now, it has to be delivered in the right way, and we’ll be talking about that a little bit more later on in this series of videos, but learning is what causes people to have passion.

And leaders create wellbeing, optimistic, positive leadership.

The balance of positive and negative behaviours

I just want to talk about the balance of positive and negative behaviours.

Positive and negative behaviours can be demonstrated by any leader at any time.

It turns out that the power of a negative behaviour is vastly stronger than the power of a positive behaviour.

And for years, I’ve been quoting the figure of three-to-one, but in fact, recent research suggests that it’s more serious than that.

It’s more like five or six to one.

In other words, if you, as a leader, exhibit one negative behaviour, so that could be that you are gruff with somebody, it could be that you say something cynical, it could be that you imply that this decision that’s been handed down from above has nothing to do with me and I’m just going along with it, any of that negative stuff, you probably have to do five or six positive things just to get the wellbeing of the staff member back where they were before you opened your mouth in the first place.

So negativity is way more powerful than positivity.

Supportive, kind, helpful leadership; facilitative, empowering leadership; but also creating accountability, and people learn through empowerment.

Leadership is local

And I think one of the things that’s really crucial to understand is that leadership is local and culture is local.

Corporate culture is almost a myth as a concept, because when you measure levels of wellbeing in groups in an organisation, the biggest difference is not between organisations, the biggest difference is between teams within the one organisation.

So you can have teams, this one doing something very similar to this one, this one’s in heaven, this one’s in hell.

And the effect of all of that is that it’s made up of what we see on the screen in front of us, job, team, and leader, those three.

And you see this diagram that says proximal versus distal, proximal means close to me, distal means a long way away from me.

And so people who have this proximal experience that’s positive, 80% of their wellbeing comes from the immediate team that they belong to.

So if you’re considering leadership development in an organisation, it might seem strange but I would say that you should focus on your team leaders and you should focus on your coordinators.

Now, of course, they’re called different things, but let’s say your level three, four and five leaders are much more important, in a sense, than the executive leaders, because when we model organisations for reasons of trying to help them create higher levels of engagement and wellbeing, what we find is that about 70% of the staff tend to report to people who might be called team leaders or coordinators or something like that.

Where to focus your efforts

So if you’re going get the greatest leverage in terms of improving wellbeing and improving leadership, why start with a small number, you should start with the largest number you possibly can.

So that’s the idea, to focus on the group that’s gonna have the greatest impact.

So that’s the end of the first video in this series, ‘What is Leadership?’ The next one we’ll be talking about the intrinsic characteristics of leaders.

So click on the link to join us for the next video where we’ll talk about, what are the characteristics that people tend to have when they are good leaders?

Ready to create effective future leaders?

Step 2 - Essential qualities of effective leaders

If you’d like some help to make your leaders more effective in the workplace, contact us about our 360 Degree Feedback tool.

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