The Trait that Defines a Leader

What’s the trait that most defines a leader?

It’s easy to think of traits that are important for leadership.

Charisma, work ethic, intelligence…


But researchers have found that one trait often stands out above the rest.

That trait is assertiveness.


A drill instructor from Marine Corps Recruiting Station Fort Lauderdale corrects a future Marine during the annual field meet April 20, 2013. Hundreds of future Marines participated in various Marine Corps inspired competitions like squad pull ups, crunches and a knowledge test designed to give them a taste of boot camp.


How assertiveness defines a leader

Are assertive leaders better? Or are they worse?

It’s not quite that simple.


Leaders tend to be evaluated along 2 basic dimensions:

  • Likeability: How much you are liked by others.
  • Effectiveness: How effective you are at getting things done.


Studies show different effects of assertiveness on these different dimensions.



The relationship between assertiveness and likeability is linear. Being more assertive tends to make leaders less likeable.


Perhaps more importantly, the relationship between assertiveness and effectiveness has diminishing returns.

  • Leaders who are at least somewhat assertive are much more effective than leaders who are not.
  • Leaders who are very assertive aren’t any more effective. And people don’t like them.


The “sweet spot”

Assertiveness is the key to being a great leader (or at least to being seen as one)

The trick is to find that “sweet spot.”

Be just assertive enough to get the job done.

No more, no less.




Image credits: Army Signal Corps, DVIDSHUB

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