Put some random people in a group, give them a task and soon enough a leader will emerge. What is it about that person that makes others grant them the honour of being in charge?
New insight comes from a study published in Personality and Social Psychology, which suggests that leaders emerge through a combination of their own outspoken behaviour, and how this outspoken behaviour is perceived by others.
In two studies Anderson and Kilduff (2009) from the University of California, Berkeley, looked at how dominant individuals in a group were perceived by others in the group. Perceived competence is important because, everything else being equal, it's very difficult to become a leader if everyone in the group thinks that person is a dunce, even if they are extremely dominant. But what Anderson and Kilduff's research showed is that there is a big gap between the actual competence of leaders and the way in which they are perceived by the others.
In the second of two studies Anderson and Kilduff had participants attempting a series of maths problems in competition with another group. The groups were videotaped and the behaviour of their members carefully examined. They found that dominant participants tended to offer more suggestions to the group, and that these individuals were perceived by the group, plus those observing the group, as the most competent.
Crucially, though, the study showed that not only did a leader's dominant behaviour of itself encourage others to see that person as competent, but this was true even though their suggestions to the group were no better, or even worse than others. In reality the leaders did not always make the best contribution to the task, but their voices were usually heard first and most often.
This study suggests leaders emerge through more subtle processes than the word 'dominance' might imply. Rather than brow-beating or bullying others into submission, leaders-in-waiting effectively signal their competence to the group by making greater verbal contributions to discussions. Others then assume that their greater contribution will mean their group will be more likely to succeed.
Outside of the laboratory, of course, money and power has more to do with who leads organisations like corporations or nations. In reality groups of people don't start on egalitarian terms and people don't always 'emerge' from groups of their peers on the basis of who shouts loudest and longest. But this study does tell us something useful about more informal, everyday groups similar to those studied in this research.