Can you teach leadership or is it an innate quality that animals are born with? A study conducted by researchers has, in fact, revealed that not only is leadership an innate characteristic, but also that these ‘natural’ leaders are also very adaptable if they’re forced to become followers.
In their findings, researchers from the University of Cambridge’s zoology department found that within a group of foraging sticklebackfishes, the leaders are usually the ones that lead the schools during their foraging.
Researchers placed feeding stations in shallow portions of the pool to see which of the individuals would traverse the ‘risky’ water to forage. Would-be leaders, as the researchers noted, were more prone to leaving the safe haven of the depth and group to find food.
After spending some time to figure out who the leaders and followers were within the group of fishes, the researchers conducted another test to see if you can teach followers to become leaders. The scientists took one leader fish and one follower fish and paired them together. In the first portion of the experiment, they rewarded the fishes (with food) when they displayed their natural behaviors. In the second portion, they rewarded the fishes if a role reversal was observed.
What the researchers found surprising about the results was that natural leaders didn’t seem impacted by the fact that they had to switch role with the follower. Conversely, it appears as though the natural followers had a tougher time adopting its new role as the leader.
When we shift the debate of leadership skills to human, we can see a similar correlation. Often times leaders of a group in society are bold and extroverted individuals and the followers tend to be those that lack these attributes. However, incentives such as a higher salary, for instance, may ‘bring out’ these qualities in people. Much like the fish, followers will have to go through some sort of process to obtain these leadership qualities—be it through training by another individual or through experience after failed trials.
The study noted, however, that even though leadership skills can be taught, the best leaders are possibly still the ones that are ‘born’ with the attributes of a leader.
“Strong positive effects of personality variation are only likely to emerge when members of a group are free to establish their own roles, such that bolder individuals can assume leadership,” according to the study.
As one of the co-authors of the study also noted, adopting “social roles of leader and follower in the way we feel natural” may be “better” for everyone in the end.