“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

That was the view on leadership of famed US political activist Ralph Nader, who led several consumer and environmental campaigning groups to change the Federal law many times, but for many organisations finding these potential leaders among their ranks is a complex and problematic task.

Those who choose to become leaders are not always the ones who should become leaders, while there is large pool of people who want to lead but don’t see themselves able to lead, yet they might be excellent candidates. Then there are those who don’t want to lead and don’t see themselves as a leader but may be or become a very effective leader – women are stereotypically in this category.

So finding potential leaders among this complex array of groups is a difficult task, especially as popular images of the charismatic, heroic and strong leader that perpetuates film, newspapers and magazines may not be the ideal type or might appear unreachable to potential leadership candidates.

Meanwhile, leadership development training, books and blogs tend to tell people they need to be a certain way; that they may need certain characteristics to become a leader, often by portraying the ideal leader. So there is this assumption that it is only people with these characteristics, like being charismatic, intelligent or dynamic that should put themselves forward to lead. This may make it even more unlikely that some suitable candidates put themselves forward. And yet research has found 40 per cent of workers have experienced bad leaders.

We examined what happens when people compare themselves to typical (as opposed to ideal) leaders and how that affects their sense of ability and motivation to lead. We found that if employees feel their characteristics are congruent with the typical leader in their organisation, they feel more able and motivated to become a leader.

By comparing themselves to an organisation’s typical leader rather than an ideal leader also means that they can perceive themselves to  be “better” in certain attributes, such as intelligence, making it more likely they see themselves as leadership material.

When somebody feels like they match or are better than the leadership images they see around them then they are more motivated to keep persisting in their attempt to become a leader, showing the determination that can help them stand out in their organisation as a potential leader.

For companies, this can be an important discovery, as by clearly communicating the characteristics they are looking for in leaders, people who identify with them will come forward as potential leaders, rather than those who associate with the popular stereotype of the ideal and sometimes perfect leader portrayed in the media. For leadership is often defined by its context, where the qualities to lead a men’s rugby team are different to those needed to be the director of an accounting company, for instance.

This theory was backed up by our research, which instead of focusing on people’s image of the ideal or an effective leader, we asked that they characterise the typical leader. Thus, being dynamic might be a trait of an ideal leader but if people do not see dynamism in the typical leader at their organisation and they don’t perceive themselves to be dynamic it is not going to put them off striving to become a leader.

So, rather than the particular characteristics of a leader being important, it is employees’ congruence – whether the perception of their own characteristics overlap with that of an organisation’s typical leader – that is the deciding factor in motivating them to becoming a leader.

We surveyed 497 employees twice, 56 per cent male and 44 per cent female, three weeks apart, and identified four common dimensions of leadership, which were: integrity, cleverness, dynamism and manipulation. The survey asked them to rate a typical leader on these dimensions, then rate themselves on the same dimensions. We further measured individuals' perceived ability and motivation to lead.

The results showed that when people saw themselves as dynamic and having integrity, just like the typical leaders they have encountered, then they were more motivated to become leaders themselves. We also found that when employees saw themselves as having more integrity and being cleverer than a typical boss, then they were also more likely to want to become a leader.

There were no circumstances where perceiving their leaders as manipulative or seeing themselves as being manipulative inspired people to become a leader.

So for people to be motivated to lead we can’t just look at employees’ characteristics or how they rate themselves in terms of their leadership credentials. Organisations need to see the context of how employees perceive the leaders in the company.

However, companies also need to understand not just their staff’s sense of self but also the biases that come with making sense of others and one’s own attributions. While there tends to be an inclination to overestimate leaders' abilities and skills (called romance of leadership), some individuals may also over or underestimate what they are capable of themselves. This is where 360 degree feedback systems, when implemented well, can offer some insights beyond self-ratings. .

What organisations need to do is pull their staff – and themselves - away from the popular image of the ideal leader. Leadership training often asks what kind of leader you want to be and what an ideal leader is, but for many self-critical employees this can set an unrealistic threshold, making them shy away from potential leadership aspirations.

Organisations may also take a critical look at the dimensions they want from their leaders corresponding to their values and goals and ask employees to match up to some, but not all of them. Assessing the current leadership team on those dimensions might help set a more realistic bar for employees to aspire to and help dispel the idealised and impossible-to-achieve image of a leader.

We know from this and previous research that how confident an employee is in their leadership ability is a strong predictor of their desire to become a leader, so communicating what characteristics an organisation wants from their leaders is important in persuading the right type of people to come forward.

By projecting these leadership values and embedding them into the company’s culture then organisations will be able to attract the type of leaders it needs to bring success to their employees and its future.

Further reading:

Schyns, B., Kiefer, T. and Foti, R. (2020) "Does thinking of myself as leader make me want to lead? The role of congruence in self-theories and implicit leadership theories in motivation to lead", Journal of Vocational Behavior, 103477.

Schyns, B., Kiefer, T., Kerschreiter, R. and Tymon, A. (2011) "Teaching implicit leadership theories to develop leaders and leadership : how and why it can make a difference", Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10, 3, 397-408.

Tina Kiefer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and teaches Leading for Change & Organisational Development on the DBA and Organisational Behaviour on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). She also lectures on People and Organisations on the suite of MSc Business courses plus the Warwick Executive Diploma in Organisational Change.

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