What does being a good leader mean to you? Having tonnes of charisma? Being intelligent? Encouraging fairness and participation in the workplace? Whatever combination of qualities you value, it’s likely that your vision of good leadership is different from your colleague’s or your manager’s, who themselves will have a highly personal vision of who they want to be at work.
A new study from Remy E. Jennings at the University of Florida and colleagues, published in Personnel Psychology, looks closely at this individualised idea of leadership — our “best possible leader self”. If we focus and reflect on this best possible self every morning, they find, it could help us behave more like a leader in the here and now.
Participants were 54 students (mainly White men) enrolled on a weekend MBA course in the United States, chosen because they were likely to aspire to leadership. All participants were in the intervention condition for five days and the control condition for five days.
In the intervention condition, participants were asked to write expressively every morning in response to the prompt “think about your best possible self in a leadership role sometime in the future. Imagine everything has gone as well as it possibly could for you. Think of this as the realisation of the best possible leader you could ever hope to be”. During this period, participants were also asked to reflect on positive traits, useful skills and achievements they felt they had and that could help them become this best possible leader.
In the control condition participants wrote instead about three neutral objects, describing their car, objects in their office, or landmarks they saw on their way to work. Positive and negative affect was measured in both conditions.
The rest of the day was the same in both conditions. In the afternoon, a follow-up survey looked at “helping” behaviours, with participants asked whether they had mentored or helped someone at work or given encouragement or appreciation to colleagues, and “visioning” behaviours: whether participants had spoken about future opportunities or strategic goals during their day.
Finally, in the evening, participants responded to two measures. One, looking at leader identity, required participants to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as “today, I displayed the characteristics of a leader”; the other invited them to describe their day in their own words and was later analysed for feelings of high expertise and confidence.
The results showed that reflecting on the best possible leader self increased participants’ positive affect, which in turn was associated with more helping behaviours and with vision-related behaviours during the work day. Those engaging in both helping and vision-related behaviours also felt more like they had behaved like a leader that day, and showed more “clout” — the feelings of high expertise and confidence as measured in the evening survey.
The study suggests that a period of envisioning and reflecting on the best possible leader self could make people more helpful and more confident in their leadership abilities. There are, however, limitations. Firstly, the small sample size was overwhelmingly made up of White men: would such an intervention have the same impact for other groups? Similarly, it’s important not to take the results as a straightforward ticket to success in the workplace. Self-reflection may be beneficial for many, but there may also be systemic factors working against promotion or increased clout for women, people of colour, or others who can be marginalised at work.
It would also be interesting to explore the actual content of participants’ best possible leader selves. Results from the study suggest that self-reflection of any kind can increase prosocial helping behaviours — but what if somebody’s best possible leader self is authoritarian and harsh with employees, or focused merely on power rather than collectivity or helpfulness? Looking at the range of “leader selves” and how they interact with workplace behaviours could give further insight.