When it comes to desirable traits in 20th century prime ministers, charisma and decisiveness “trump leadership that is willing to view the world in various shades of gray,” says Sam Rohrer on Democratic Audit UK.

This is the main finding of a recent study which looked at British prime ministers spanning the 20th century, with a view to understanding whether they have specific psychological traits that affect people’s perceptions of their effectiveness as leaders. Rohrer studied transcripts of parliamentary debates, with three traits coming out on top in terms of perceived effectiveness: self-confidence, decisiveness, and charisma.

People know effective leadership not when they see or hear it, but when they feel it, which is perhaps why confidence and charisma are an important part of the mix. As pointed out by R. Mark Bell of Regent University, charisma is a trait that is ‘felt’ and then attributed to a leader by followers. You could say the same about confidence – great leaders just seem to have it.

People are drawn to leaders who carry these traits through the way they communicate. It’s not just about the dissemination of relevant information, it’s about the way they deliver the message, by drawing on emotions, telling stories and being open, and therefore credible and trustworthy.

Bell refers to Ronald Reagan who is remembered historically as a great communicator, with a style that was perceived as particularly charismatic (one study ranked him in the top three charismatic American presidents in the 20th century). Reagan encouraged understanding and sentiment through using symbolism, metaphors and imagery in his speeches.

Decisiveness is important because leaders are often put in situations where they have to make difficult decisions in times of great haste. Churchill: “The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground.” The best leaders assess the information they have in front of them, weigh the options and decide on what’s best, confidently.

John F Kennedy showed decisiveness. Despite advice from his advisors to pursue a full military invasion of Cuba following reports of nuclear missiles, Kennedy opted for a naval blockade and negotiations with Soviet leaders. The blockade worked, and the US was able to avoid nuclear war.

Great leaders throughout history reveal many desirable traits, and while much has changed about the world in which we currently live, human nature hasn’t really changed. Shane Snow summed it up nicely in an article on Fast Company: “Think of the best leaders in history – Mandela, Churchill, King, etc. – and you’ll see a pattern: they tell great stories, with boldness, absolutely convinced they are right. They both inspire and grab attention.”

Image attribute/source: Ronald Reagan /

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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