Feel Guilty About Your Failures? Then You're More Likely to Become a Leader



  • The "Big Five" dimensions of personality are all associated with leadership to some degree
  • The tendency to experience guilt due to failures is a powerful predictor of whether someone will take on a leadership role

In a recent post for his "Ulterior Motives" blog on Psychology Today, University of Texas Professor Art Markman highlighted research showing that people who feel guilt make good leaders. What follows is an excerpt; the complete post can be found on the Psychology Today website.

[Q]uite a bit of research has begun to explore the personality characteristics that give someone a head start toward being a good leader.

Personality psychologists have identified what they call the "Big Five" dimensions of personality. Essentially, if you throw a large number of questions about behavior into a survey, there are five broad characteristics that emerge from people’s responses: Openness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, and Extraversion.

All of them are associated with leadership to some degree. People who are open to experience, for example, tend to be better leaders than those who are not. Perhaps obviously, people who are conscientious are also better leaders than those who are not so conscientious. People who are emotionally stable are also more effective leaders than those who are not emotionally stable. The other two traits have a more complex relationship with leadership.

Agreeableness is the degree to which a person gets along with others. A moderate degree of agreeableness is good for leaders, because they have to have some talent at getting along with others. However, leaders who are too agreeable will not tell others things that they do not want to hear. So, high levels of agreeableness are not good for leadership.

Extraversion is the degree to which someone seeks out others and likes to have the spotlight shown on them. Clearly leaders need to be comfortable interacting with others and bringing ideas from a work group to a broader audience. At the same time, a leader who wants the spotlight too much can keep other group members from getting enough credit for their efforts.

Of course, there are lots of other characteristics that define people's personality beyond these Big Five. A paper in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Rebecca Schaumberg and Francis Flynn explored the influence of people’s proneness to feel guilty on their leadership ability[...]

The best predictor of whether people would take a leadership role in this study was the degree to which people tend to feel guilt as a result of failures. The tendency to experience guilt was a more powerful predictor than any of Big Five personality characteristics. 


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Art Markman

Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing, University of Texas at Austin

After getting a B.S. in Cognitive Science from Brown University in 1988, Professor Art Markman went on to graduate school in the Psychology...

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