Realities and perceptions of leadership

By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hürriyet Daily News

Istanbul is a city filled with diversity and color.  Last weekend, it rocked with the sounds of Bollywood at an event organized by an Indian friend of mine named Raja.  He hosted a large group for a great night of food, dancing, and music at the Dubb Indian Restaurant in Sultanahmet.

Raja’s professional background is in engineering, and he manages quality control for one of the biggest construction projects in town.  But Saturday night, we saw a different side of him.

Raja dressed formally, and he greeted each guest at the door, one by one.  He made every person in the room feel special, talking individually to everyone, including the restaurant staff and the musicians and dancers.  He was completely in control of the entire event, and all eyes were on him.

Throughout the entire evening, Raja didn’t sit even once.  He was working hard to ensure the event ran smoothly and his guests enjoyed themselves.  He was busy connecting with people, and connecting them to each other.  He escorted people around the room, his arms around their shoulders, introducing them to the other guests.  He was bringing together diverse groups of people and helping them become one larger group.

People saw a side of Raja they had never seen before.  They were impressed by his energy and enthusiasm, and his natural competence in managing such a large event.  They eagerly asked him to organize more events like this one.  They didn’t see Raja as an engineer, they saw him as a masterful organizer of cultural events.  That night, they made him their leader.

Watching my friend, and how the group responded to him, reminded me of some research conducted by Cameron Anderson and Gavin J. Kilduff of the University of California at Berkeley.  Their research shows dominant personalities are usually highly influential leaders in a group.  The reason is, groups tend to equate dominance with competence.  The more a person displays his dominance, the more the group’s perception of his competence grows, and the more they listen to him.

What that meant for Raja Saturday was that in order to lead such a big group, yes, he needed to show a basic level of dominance.  But then, once the group saw that he had that – in this case, the ability to manage the group – and was exerting it regularly, a sort of feedback loop formed.  Raja displayed his dominance, the group saw his competence, they granted him more space to display his dominance, Raja filled that space, the group saw it as even greater levels of competence, and the cycle continued, such that pretty soon, the group’s perception of him had grown and they collectively made him their leader.

Raja was perceived as competent, and in his case, the perception was in line with reality.  However, studies show that sometimes, people who are perceived as competent are not necessarily so.  Reality does not always match perception.  How do we know when the two are out of sync?  First, look for breaches in the competence you believe is there.

For example, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is perceived as a competent leader.  His dominant tone of voice and his strong manner raise our perception of him.  But what happened in Davos recently was not a sign of the competence we expect from a prime minister.  Leaders need to keep their calm, wit and humor, even under the most difficult circumstances. Prime Minister Erdogan lost his temper and spoke angrily.  If we saw the same behavior in another nation’s leader, we would think it unbecoming of a true leader.  However, in this case, our emotional perception blinded us to a hard reality.

After you’ve looked for and questioned breaches like this, you might decide they are excusable.  You might consider them mere cosmetic blemishes on an otherwise solid record, not symptoms of a deeper problem.  However, you can’t know they are simply cosmetic blemishes until you have subjected them to questioning.

We need perceptions to survive in life.  However, perception is a skill and it needs to be trained.  Relying on untrained perception simply because it is convenient does not help us grow.  Learn to trust your perception, but remember that it is not always in sync with reality.  Subject it to rigorous questioning, and your trust in it will grow.

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