Wait! Leadership demands substance, not shouts


Mwikali entered her office one warm sunny Nairobi afternoon. After spending the whole morning prospecting for corporate insurance clients in the Industrial Area, she looked forward to the remainder of the day to catch up on e-mails.

Previously unbeknown to her, Mwikali’s boss randomly appointed her to an ad hoc committee redesigning the firm’s website. The appointment letter lay unceremoniously on her desk when she returned.

Upon reading the appointment letter, Mwikali trudged downstairs to the conference room to attend the first committee meeting. Each committee member received a term of reference for the project, but no one had been appointed as the chair.

As the meeting progressed, each attendee shared politely about what they liked and disliked about the company’s website. But eventually, a colleague, Lewa, from the Finance Department, started cutting off fellow members to insert his own opinion.

He shot down the good ideas of others. He criticised collective opinions. Then kept rambling about what should happen in the redesign.

Lewa had no substantive quality to his comments, outbursts, and insistence, but he talked frequently and profusely. Much to Mwikali’s surprise, the committee elected Lewa as the committee chair despite his clear lack of grasp of technology and marketing concepts pertaining to a web presence.

Sadly, Mwikali witnessed what business leadership researchers have long established. The person who talks the most is the most likely to become the leader. A strong positive correlation exists between the amount of time speaking in a group setting and the emergence of that individual as the defacto or official leader.

The correlation is so strong that many organisational psychologists have pondered whether the sheer volume of speaking time may determine the emergence of a leader with no regard as to whether the quality of what is being said plays a role.

Essentially, do loud boisterous constantly talking colleagues end up getting promoted or does the substance, depth, and usefulness of what they say also play a role?

Many commentators have guessed that the real cause of leadership emergence comes from someone’s gender in that the excessive talking only works for men who seek leadership.

Other social scientists proclaim that someone’s personality or likability plays a critical factor. While still others think that talking a lot only helps those with high intelligence quotients.

However, Neil MacLaren and a large team of co-researchers conducted a comprehensive study that uncovered that the quantity of talking alone is what leads to leaders emerging on teams.

Regardless of someone’s gender, and no matter if someone is likeable or not, an extrovert or introvert, or how smart or unintelligent they are, just talking and talking and talking can cause someone to become a leader.

So, on your teams it is critical to be aware of your own self-bias towards those who speak a lot. Excessive talking does not equal good leadership.

Just because someone demands time to push their ideas does not mean that they should simultaneously be given leadership. Look for substance, experience, and intelligence. In short, quality over quantity. Do not be fooled.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor