Leaders Are Made Not Born

Confident, charismatic and tough are some traits that you would expect to find in a successful leader. That is why it is widely believed that all leaders have similar personality types, meaning there is an archetypal personality for leaders. A good leader is thought of as someone who has such a strong personality that people just follow them because of their forceful ideologies and values. Those who have sufficient character are likely to triumph over whatever reality they confront.

A new picture of leadership has emerged however, which focuses on how a persons ability to lead is largely dependent on their understanding of their followers, not by how charismatic they can be. It explains that leadership is the ability to shape what followers want to do instead of enforcing compliance; leadership is dependent on constituent co-operation and support rather than punishment and fear. To gain any form of credibility amongst followers, leaders must try to position themselves among the group and never above it.

Recent literature identifies that a good leader does not have any fixed set of personality traits. Instead a leader is often a choice by the group being led, in fact leaders can even select the traits they want to project to followers to increase their standing amongst the group. A leader shares in the same identity as their followers, they are a representation of their group. The most influential presidents, captains and chief executives adopt the values and identity of the group then try to shape that identity for their own ends.

No accident that George. W. Bush, has often presented himself to Americans as a regular guy rather than the next in line from an elite East Coast Yale University dynasty!

From Charisma to Consensus

100 years ago, the dominant theory of leadership was that all leaders have the ideal personality. There was a romanticised view of leaders, with many people seeing them as heroes and saviours. However, post WW2, and following the rise of fascism and Nazism many turned against the notion that character alone determined the effectiveness of leaders. To believe that entire nations could be lead by one charismatic person into carrying out some of the Nazi atrocities was hard to stomach, so psychologists began to look for other explanations of leadership.

Scholars began to favour ‘contingency models’ which focus on the context which leaders operate, as opposed to the leader alone. Influential social psychologist Fred Fiedler suggested that the secret to good leadership lies in finding and settling in the ‘perfect match’. By this Fiedler meant that there is an ideal leader for every group, basically, every would be leader has an ideal leadership context. Strong leadership comes out of a symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers within a social group, it requires an intimate understanding of group psychology.

The study of how groups can restructure individual psychology provides the first clues into the secrets of effective leadership. Henri Tajfel and John. C. Turner’s research into social identity in the 1970s may provide some answers. Social identity refers to the part of a person’s self that is defined by a group. Turner pointed out, social identity allows people to identify and act together as group members. Social identities thus make group behaviour possible; enabling us to reach a consensus on what matters to us to co-ordinate our actions with others and to strive for shared goals.

This viewpoint does not appeal to leadership directly, but clarifies why leadership requires a common ‘us’ to represent a group. Leaders are at their most effective when they can induce followers to see themselves as a group member and to see the group’s interest as their own interest. An example of this comes from Bernard Bass from the American Binghamton University when he showed that leaders are best when they ensure that followers see the group’s identity as their personal identity, and therefore they can lead them to do certain things because it is in the best interest of everyone.

A prime of example of how it is integral for a leader to share similar identities as followers comes from the European monarchs. Before national identities emerged, many monarchs ruled by force, using power rather than understanding. Once people identified with nations, effective monarchs needed to rule as patriots who were able to lead the people because of a shared national identity. Monarchs such as Louis XVI of France misunderstood or ignored this transition and litterally lost their heads.

One of the Gang

When shared social identity exists, leaders can best represent the identity that will have the most influence over the group members. The best leaders are usually prototypical of the group that they are leading. George. W. Bush is a prime example in the way he connected with Middle America – intentionally or otherwise – when he littered his speeches with verbal gaffes, something that columnist Kevin Drum suggested in the Washington monthly worked in Bush’s favour during the 2004 election. Indeed, those who scoffed at Bush’s awkward utterances suffered, because their criticisms cast them as the alien elite, out of touch with most ordinary Americans.

Even the way Bush dressed helped him to appear as representative of the group’s he was leading. His leather jackets and cowboy clothes create an image of him as a regular guy. In the same vein the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat adopted the headscarf of the peasantry to identify with his people. Such examples counter the idea that leadership requires a particular set of personality traits, the only desired traits and actions necessary have to fit in with the culture of the group being led.

This may explain why young people have become so disinterested in politics in recent years. They may not relate to the politicians today, and therefore feel indifferent about voting any one group in.

If fitting in is important for gaining influence and control, then anything that sets leaders apart from the group can compromise their effectiveness. Acting superior or failing to treat followers respectfully or listen to them will undermine a leaders credibility. That is why paying CEOs disproportionately large wages often results in unrest within a company, because those who are being led find it hard to relate to those who are leading, because of the differences in salary.

Wielding words – The Skill of lincoln
“Four scores and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”
– Abraham Lincoln
Leadership is not just conforming to group norms! The best leaders define their groups social identity to fit with policies they plan to promote, enabling them to position those policies as expressions of what their constituents already believe. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Abaraham Lincoln strongly emphasised the principle of equality to rally people around his key policy objectives: unification of the states and emancipation of the slaves
Lincoln elevated equality to a position of supreme importance and made it the touchstone of American identity. After Lincoln’s address, Americans interpreted the constitution in a new way. This reshaping of American identity as centred on equality allowed Lincoln to unite and mobilise Americans around freeing slaves.

No matter how skilled a person may be a leader’s effectiveness is highly dependent on two things: Do followers see their leaders as one of them? Do followers find their leader’s vision of identity compelling? Psychological analysis tells us that for leadership to function well, leaders and followers must be bound by a shared identity and by the quest to use that identity as a blueprint for action. The division of responsibility in leadership can vary. In more authoritarian cases, leaders can claim sole jurisdiction over identity and punish anyone who dissents. In more democratic cases leaders can engage the population in a dialogue over their shared identity and goals. Either way, the development of a shared social identity is the basis of influential and creative leadership. If you can control the definition of identity, you can change the world.

Musa Clarke


Seeing Sounds and Tasting Shapes – Synaesthesia the Phenomenon


Duke Ellington – Arguably the greatest Jazz composers had Synaesthesia


I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one colour. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different colour. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colours that you do but I see them in textures                                                                                                                    Duke Ellington

Over 100 years ago a bizarre condition surfaced, Francis Galton (1880) reported a disorder called Synaesthesia. He noticed that some patients produced a sensation in one modality after a stimulus was applied to another. As when hearing a certain sound evokes the visualisation of a certain colour. However, Synaesthesia can come in many forms, for example the printed number ‘5’ always ‘looks’ green where as ‘2’ may ‘look’ red or every time you taste garlic you feel a square shape in your hand. Following the increased study into the condition what is more fascinating than its uniqueness is what it can teach us about the average mind.

The incredible difference in Synaesthetes is that they retain second senses vividly. As much as you might think of cold when looking at an ice cube you never actually feel it. However, in our everyday life we mix two senses, we may say the cheese tasted ‘sharp’ or her smile was ‘warm’. In much of literature you will find an array of metaphors and similes that mix two senses.

Many argue then that the disorder is just an extreme version of a quality that all humans share in. This incredible ability to map one sense to another is said to have been the base for the development of language as was demonstrated in a study by Ramachandran and Hubbard. They used two different objects and asked participants to identify which one was named ‘boobaa’ and which ‘kiki’. 95 percent identified the round blob like item as ‘boobaa’ and the sharp angular object as ‘kiki’. They then stated the reason behind this was the sharp phonemic inflections of the sounds ‘KI-KI’.


BooBaa and KiKi

This experiment led to a landslide in literature about how humans map one completely independent cortical area to another in order to derive answers. It birthed the idea that there is a subconscious Synaesthesia that includes sensory to motor association in the human mind. Considering it in the context of language development many, not all, languages follow similar patterns, for example, in English adjectives denoting large objects contain rounded vowels and involve widening the vocal tract and lips (LARGE; HUGE; ENORMOUS). Similar patterns appear in other adjectives, by narrowing the lips when it comes to words that describe small objects (tiny; minute; miniature). We subconsciously naturally associate two unrelated senses. Something as simple as dancing, which comes naturally to most of us, is the product of us mapping our motor cortical areas against our audio sensory areas. It’s these everyday things that research into Synaesthesia has helped us garner further understanding of.

So why do some experience this phenomenon at greater intensity than most? Synaesthesia is a heritable condition, and is caused by a mutation gene that prevents the independence of certain modalities in the brain. What evolutionists discovered is that having Synaesthesia provides adaptive benefit. Synaesthesia has been linked to creativity, with the disorder more common among artists and musicians. Being creative means you are more sexually attractive since creativity indicates genetic quality. By having Synaesthesia you will benefit in regards to sexual selection. Other benefits of having Synaesthesia come in memory. Synaesthete Daniel Tammet used his associations to memorise pi to 22,514 digits. Demonstrations like this point to a link between synesthetic experiences with cognitive and perceptual anchors that help in retention of critical stimuli in the world, which would have been invaluable to our ancestors.

How does Synaesthesia work? Most research into the disorder suggest that it is likely to be a consequence of cross wiring between two independent brain regions. Fascinating stuff, considering the most common type of Synaesthesia is grapheme-colour (visual stimuli, numbers or letters with colours). The visual grapheme and colour areas both reside within the fusiform gyrus in very close proximity to one another. Meaning an increased likelihood of cross wiring between them. The closeness of these two areas is particularly prevalent in the left hemisphere which helps in explaining why the majority of synaesthetes are non-right handers, since handedness is hemisphere specific.

So why don’t we all have cross wiring in our brains? It is known that the cross wiring in the brain is a result of defective synaptic pruning between different brain areas. Developmental theories suggest that infants are born with the mixing of senses but as we get older synaptic pruning takes place until all the senses become disentangled from one another. Studies show that in the first two months of life there are wide spread cortical responses to visual and audio stimuli. When a baby hears a funny sound their eyes will open up widely, as if they are seeing sounds. This is demonstrated in the video: A baby’s response to funny noises. Their little brains are not completely pruned and separated so more than one sense is activated by one stimuli. This means that everyone has Synaesthesia in the early periods of their life but as we grow older our brain regions separate as each region becomes more specialised.

Musa Clarke

The Dark Triad – Why Women Love Bad Personalities

  1. Narcissism – the inordinate fascination with oneself
  2. Psychopathy – an individual who manifests amoral and antisocial behaviour, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful relationships
  3. Machiavellianism – subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency or dishonesty

These three personality traits all correlate with each other meaning if you score highly on one of them there is an increased likelihood you will rate highly in the other two. Together they are known as the Dark Triad. For years the Dark Triad traits have been scrutinised by evolutionists because they are socially undesirable yet some women, although conventional wisdom tells them that they should be weary of such characters, may find them rather charming. Now, studies into this personality type have provided new and exciting insights into this vexing phenomenon.

Being high in the Dark Triad provides some adaptive benefit, that much is certain, since it is a common personality trait across a variety of cultures. But what are these benefits? Having a Dark personality has shown links to other traits such as being emotionally stable, having resilient self-esteem and even increased sexual success. Researchers have continually argued that the Dark Triad, as socially undesirable as it is, provides some kind of benefit to individuals irrespective of its cost to society.

What evolutionists do know for certain, is that individuals high in these traits tend to mate differently, and with mating being key to evolution this may be an area where it is of benefit to have a Dark Triad personality.  Research has shown that they pursue competition and novelty in their love lives by attempting to steal mates off others and are more likely to leave their current relationships in pursuit of new exciting ones. Coupled with the fact they report more sexual success; possessing these traits may mean one employs a mating style characterised by the pursuit of short term mating opportunities (e.g. no strings attached, one night stands) and the failure to maintain long term mateships. It was also discovered that men score higher on these traits, which may explain why on average males show a less restricted sociosexuality. A collection of evolutionary theories have been used to explain this phenomenon, and when put together it makes for a compelling explanation of why these personality types still exist.

Life History Theory describes differences in the amount of resources an individual will allocate to somatic effort (i.e. resources devoted to continued survival) and reproductive effort (i.e. resources dedicated to mating). Although it is often used to explain species level differences, it has become increasingly popular in explaining differences within the human population. The easiest way to understand these differences is that individuals may choose to adopt relatively fast life strategies whereby they discount long-term gains in favour of the short-term. An individual can have one child and dedicate all their resources to that one child assuring they are quality offspring (slow life strategy) or they can have many children dedicating little to no resources to each, hoping rather than expecting each will reproduce (fast life strategy).

This is likely to be the reason why males score higher on the traits. If a female had a Dark Triad personality and expended more energy on reproduction opportunities she is likely to incur more costs (minimum of 9months investment in unwanted offspring) than if a male does whose minimum investment is the time it takes to copulate. This disparity in parental investment explains why the  Dark Triad is considered to be a male adapted trait, since consistently employing a short term mating strategy is more adaptive to men. Indeed, studies do show that females preference in relationships are largely influenced by the potential mates willingness to provide investment and paternal care.

There is a twist in the tale! Theorists proposed that ancestral women evolved to engage in mixed mating strategies in which romantic relationships were pursued dependent on social constructs in order to enhance reproductive fitness. Research shows that women’s mate preferences systematically differ in short-term vs long-term scenarios. In many cultures women place more importance on the muscularity and physical attractiveness of mates when evaluating them as short term partners. These patterned differences in women’s mate preferences for particular characteristics are explained by the Good Genes Sexual Selection Theory. In humans there are differences in heritable fitness. Since individuals cannot directly read fitness effects of a potential mates genes any preference for others who have good genes must be based on traits or attributes that correlate with heritable fitness, these are referred to as good gene indicators. This means that when women are willing to partake in short-term mating, they are only willing to do so with a mate that indicates good heritable fitness, or possesses qualities that indicate ‘good genes’.

Many researchers argue that women deem males high in the Dark Triad as attractive because having this personality indicates good genetic quality. This is why men who score highly on Dark Triad measures report more sexual success. This was then tested in an experiment of 102 female university students, and what was found was fascinating.

Women were attracted to the Dark Triad personality but their attraction significantly increased when it was attached to other attributes of genetic quality (muscularity, physical attractiveness, creativity). In other words, despite an individual possessing the Dark Triad personality, which is largely seen as socially undesirable, individuals who have no heritable fitness (facial attractiveness, physical strength, height) would pay steep reproductive costs if they had this personality without actually having good genes. The classic prototype of one such sexually selected feature is the peacocks tail, which would seem to be of no benefit to the peacocks survival yet; those peacocks who are most physically fit can afford to possess a grand tail, and so the more extravagant the tail the better genes the peacock has. The Dark Triad personality could work the same, such a social species like humans means having a dark personality could be a hindrance more than a help. The more you can exhibit such personality traits and still survive the more genetic quality you have because you are living life with a high amount of risk. This explains why the Dark Triad is often linked to other indicators of genetic quality such as physical attractiveness and social dominance. 

If exhibiting a Dark Triad personality is similar to a peacock brandishing his tail then women must be able to notice such personalities when they are at their most fertile and most likely to conceive, during ovulation. In the second part of the study we tested whether women’s preference for this personality differs over the course of the ovulatory cycle. How this works is that when women are most likely to conceive they exhibit increased attraction to indicators of good genes and place less importance on stability and paternal investment in an attempt to secure the best possible genes for their offspring. What was found is that during periods of ovulation women rated Dark Triad males as more attractive as a father, in a long term and short term relationship, indicating that at their most fertile women pick up on the Dark Triad and deem it as more attractive proving that a Dark Personality is an indicator of good genes. 

What the study found was that women are more attracted to men with dark personalities but only in specific contexts, so they do find these personalities as attractive but not all the time. It can be argued that women deem dark personalities as sexy however they are not really a consideration for long term relationships, unless women are ovulating. It is not really possible for a male to lack genetic quality, be high in the dark triad and be sexually successful, since the Dark Triad is not a direct marker of good genes instead it just suggests that a man has genetic quality. This means it is very costly for a man with a low standard of genetic quality to employ this personality type. So women are attracted to Dark Triad personalities but that doesn’t mean you can fake it!

Musa Clarke