Leadership: 16 Science-Backed Skills To Make You a Better Leader

Leaders think differently.

The research behind leadership success is clear. What makes a leader different? Here are the science-backed leadership qualities to make you a great leader.

What is Leadership?

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to shadow the CEO of a major technology company for one day. That one day changed my life forever. Walking through the hallways of his company, hearing him interact on phone calls and watching him tackle projects and challenges was like nothing I had ever seen before.

He was a human behavior hacker.

Every single one of his actions was based on how humans work. Throughout the day, he would turn to me secretly and whisper the explanation behind the behavior we had just witnessed. That day was the start of my fascination with people and the hidden forces that make us tick. Since then, I have studied hundreds of leaders like him looking for patterns.

10 Qualities of a Great Leader

Skill #1: Go for the Small Yes

Leaders are extremely adept at getting people to buy into ideas — even ones they might not normally say yes to. Two researchers—Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser decided to test out how exactly to get people to do something. They went door-to-door in a small neighborhood and asked people if they would put a large sign on their front lawn that said “Drive Carefully.”

Only 20% of people said that they would put the sign up in their yard. I was actually surprised a full 20% said yes, but it was still a small percent. Then, they asked people if they would put a smaller three-inch sign saying “Drive Carefully” in their window. Many more people said yes to this. Then, the researchers came back three weeks later and asked those same people to put the much bigger sign in their yard. This time, 76% of the people said they would put the larger sign on their lawn.

What does this study tell us? A LOT. It’s the perfect example of how asking for a small request first will help you get a ‘yes’ to a bigger request later. Why does this work? People who first put the small sign up began to feel helpful. They also went into a mental as well as a physical agreement with the researchers to drive safely. In fact, these people most likely felt like very good citizens for putting the sign up.

Therefore, when researchers returned and asked for the larger sign, they had very few barriers to break. The homeowners had already been in agreement with the researchers, had already thought of themselves as helpful citizens and they had already changed the look of their house by adding a message. Making it bigger would take very small mental change, and this is why 76% said yes the second time.


Leaders never start with the big ask. They know that they have to get small buy-ins first.

Don’t go for the big ask right up front. Get the small yes and earn the big one.

Skill #2: Embrace the Pygmalion Effect

If you want to motivate the people around you, put away your wallet, don’t offer a bonus and whip out the compliments. A study by Professor Norihiro Sadato and his associates about social rewards found that receiving praise–not cash–was the best way to motivate participants.

This is counterintuitive–most of our society is structured around using cash motivators to increase our happiness. When you perform well at your job, you get a salary increase. When you want to reward an employee, you give them a bonus. When you need to incentivize a child to do well, you dole out an allowance.

However, when researchers asked 48 participants to complete a finger-tapping activity, the groups that received praise for their performance showed a significantly higher rate of improvement relative to other participants. Why is this the case? First, the researchers discovered that social rewards like praise are registered in the same part of the brain that light up when the subject is rewarded with actual money! Second, when you assign someone a positive label, like having high intelligence or being a good person, that actually cues them up to live up to that label.

This is called the Pygmalion Effect. In one study about fundraising, the researchers told average donors that they were in fact among the highest donors. Can you guess what happened? Those donors then did in fact donate above average.


Leaders constantly give their team and those around them genuinely good labels (it doesn’t work if you are fake or manipulative.) They want everyone around them to live up to their best selves.

Give praise, not cash. Be sure to stick to positive truths. You can say, “You are one of our best customers” or “You’re such a pleasure to do business with.” In that way, they will actually want to be one of your best customers and try even harder to be a pleasure to do business with.

Skill #3: Logic or Emotion?

Do you think the world’s greatest leaders primarily use logic or emotion? Our friends at Quantified Communications analyzed the communication patterns of the global leaders on Fortune’s 2016 list to see if they communicate differently.

They used their communication analytics platform to measure content samples from each leader. To measure persuasion, they analyzed three distinct tactics: logic, intuition and emotion.

  • Logic appeals to our heads and includes language that establishes reason, proof and insight–citing research and statistics to support main arguments.
  • Intuition appeals to our gut. These appeals establish credibility through language that convinces audiences to see the speaker as an expert, including achievements, testimonials and case studies.
  • Emotion, of course, appeals to our hearts. These are the stories, the imagery,and the metaphors that help audiences become personally invested in the message 

The researchers expected to see a combination of all three appeals. After all, a speaker’s job in crafting a persuasive argument is to understand the audience’s needs and create the right blend of appeals to head, gut and heart to meet those needs.

But Fortune’s greatest leaders used an unexpected blend. Instead of relying on logic, the world’s greatest leaders used 2.9x more appeals to emotion and 3.4x more appeals to intuition.

This preference for emotional and intuition-driven language was universal among the leaders on Fortune’s list from politicians and corporate leaders to activists, journalists and artists.


Leaders use a blend of emotion, intuition and logic to appeal to their audiences, BUT a focus on the heart is more important than the head.

Don’t forget to make the emotional appeal to your audiences. Check out a great example from Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code in her 2016 TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection.”

Skill #4: Choose the Right Seat at the Table

First, leaders always get a seat at the table. That’s a given. But which seat is best? Leaders know how important body language and spacing is for perception. In fact, there is some fascinating research behind how and where we sit affects our interactions. If you walked into a conference room like the one pictured on the right, where would you sit?

The most powerful seat is seat “A”. Why? This seat is at the head of the table and is facing the door, so those sitting here can see everyone in the room as soon as they walk in. Here’s the catch — not all leaders want to sit in the most powerful seat all the time. If you are going into a room to watch someone else present, attend a negotiation or be seen and not heard, you would want to pick a very different seat.

Each seat means something different, and you should know the psychological layout of every room you enter.


Leaders know how to pick the right seat every time.

Learn the science of seating in our full article and video overview.

Skill #5: Avoid Empty Calorie Time

Have you ever spent hours doing something and then realized later that it was a complete waste of time? This is especially frustrating when the activity itself had absolutely no purpose or benefit. I call this empty calorie time—we waste time doing nothing, but still use valuable brain energy.

Leaders are extremely purposeful with their mental calories. They don’t waste mental energy on junk activities. They consume and stick with nutritious mental nuggets.

Here’s why we are sucked into empty calorie activities. We:

  • Are too tired to do anything productive.
  • Want to stop working, but feel too guilty to take a real break.
  • Are bored.
  • Are procrastinating from a project or activity that we dread.

According to one study, when people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling happy only 56% of the time. That is because in mind-wandering, our brain can’t recuperate and it can’t build–it’s stuck in limbo. Like eating cotton candy when you are hungry–you are eating, but it isn’t helping much.


Leaders are extremely judicious with their mental energy. If they want to take a break, they do a real break–not watching TV or skimming Facebook. They let their mind take a real break with exercise, meditation, yoga or creative activities, which actually boost brain activity.

As more and more devices, games and social networks enter into our lives, we have to protect our time. If you need a break, actually take a mental break–don’t fill it with empty calorie activities.

Skill #6: Ask Behavioral Questions

It’s often said that leaders ask great questions. But what does a ‘great question’ really mean? Truly great leaders ask questions that crack people open. This is a concept called Behavioral Interviewing.

Behavioral interview questions are designed to reveal the true nature of a candidate’s personality, motivations and values, so both the candidate and interviewer have a more productive interaction.

The right questions can unlock someone’s personality and help you get to know someone’s behavior. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What’s something that you used to believe but no longer believe?
  • Tell me about your best and worst days at work.
  • You have two teleportation devices. Where do you place them and why?


Leaders ask deep, interesting and behavioral questions.

Pick your 3 favorite questions and begin to use them with your team.

Skill #7: Set BIG Goals

Your goals should terrify you just a little bit.

In my recap of the book, Elite Minds, I talk about how you should only be 60% sure you are going to achieve your goal. It should make you sweat a little when you think about it. According to a study published online in the Journal of Consumer Research, being more ambitious actually makes you happier.

Those who set high goals are more satisfied than their counterparts with lower expectations. University of California-Riverside professor Cecile K. Cho had one group of research participants pick stocks and set a high target rate of return. They were told they could set a rate between 6% and 20%. The low goal-setters were not nearly as ha-py with their winnings AND were more disappointed by their losses. Big goal setters were more happy with their winnings AND less disappointed by their losses.

When we set big goals, we get big rewards. Even if we lose, we feel like we gave it our best try, which is fulfilling in a different way.


Leaders never set a goal they know they can achieve. Their fear of failure sparks their fire.

Push yourself, set big goals and get big rewards.

Skill #8: Abandon Revenge. It’s Not Worth It.

Revenge is like throwing a hot coal at someone else—we burn our own hand more than the person we are trying to hurt. Study after study has found that when we make business or life decisions out of revenge—or the desire to hurt someone else–we only end up losing money or having more difficulty ourselves. There are a few ways research has found to curb vengeful thoughts:

  • Get perspective: Think of bigger problems to get your situation into perspective.
  • Write it down: Expressive writing about your anger and upset have shown to lessen the feelings entirely, giving you relief without having to act on your revenge.

These are great, but I have an even better idea. Read this post on the Psychology of Revenge.


Leaders turn their revenge into the desire to succeed.

Never act on revenge. The best revenge is massive success.

Skill #9: Embody the Body Language of Leaders

Do you know an alpha when you see one?

Alpha: The alpha is the individual in the community with the highest social rank.

We all know someone who has a natural magnetism. Someone who walks into a room and people look. Someone who speaks and people listen. Someone who was born to lead. Is that someone you? And if so, how do we know an alpha when we see one? Leaders have a very specific set of nonverbal behaviors that signal to others in the group and to the outside world that they are confident. Let’s test your knowledge of the body language of leaders:

What do leaders do? Smile less. Contrary to popular belief, smiling is actually seen as a sign of submission. Submissive people tend to smile more at alphas to show they are agreeable and non-threatening to their power. Alphas in turn (think Clint Eastwood or Francis Underwood) smile much less because their power is enough to put people in line. Females in particular need to be careful not to over smile as it puts them in a submissive position. Dr. Nancy Henley found that women smile in 87 percent of social encounters, while men only smile 67 percent of the time.

What do leaders do? Embrace stillness. Leaders have less movement as they are observers, and others move around them. If you want to signal confidence and power, try not to fidget, pace or hop. Be in control of your nonverbal, just like you can be in control of a project or task. Stillness is perceived as more powerful and in control.

What do leaders do? Use a strong handshake. Leaders know the importance of touch — a nod doesn’t pack as much power. Leaders not only go in for a handshake when they first meet someone, they also always seal the deal on a handshake. The key is to keep your hand vertical when you shake someone’s hand and give 1 to 3 pumps. More handshake tips and a video here!


Leaders know the body language of alphas and adopt it!

Skill #10: Invest in Communication Skills

In our hyper-connected world, leaders have to be best-in-class communicators. And they have to do this in a variety of settings and across countless channels — from on the phone to the boardroom to Slack to the elevator. Here are some fascinating facts for you:

With these heightened and evolving customer expectations, now more than ever, leaders need to serve as the very best role models for stellar executive communication. 


How do you invest in your communication skills?

  • Read posts like this — win! You are already here!
  • Regularly read the latest books on communication hacks and science.
  • Get semi-annual reviews on performance AND communication tactics from team members.
  • Take people skills courses like People School.

Skill #11: Talk to Yourself

Leaders talk to themselves in a very specific way. In other words, their self-talk sounds different than non-leaders. The popularity of the Law of Attraction and other philosophies that prescribe the use of positive mantras don’t quite get it right. Repeating in your head over and over again that you want to get a raise will most likely not affect your salary in any way. Instead, a review of over 25 studies found that the most effective kind of self-talk is called “instructional self-talk.”

Instructional self-talk is the internal commentary that happens while we are trying to complete a challenging activity or task. For example, while completing a difficult report at work, your instructional self-talk might sound like, “Okay, open up Powerpoint, find a title image, make a chart on the recent statistics…” This kind of self-talk actually helps us in ways we are just beginning to understand.

Researchers believe it helps us battle distractions and keep us logical with our tasks. Researchers also found that self-talk is the most successful when thinkers first ruminate on their end-goal, make a plan and then walk through it. So, try planning out what you want to do before starting.


Leaders give themselves instructional self-pep-talks and walk themselves through almost every task. This makes them purposeful and effective.

Use instructional self-talk, not mantras to reach your goals.

Skill #12: Decide You Will Be Awesome

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a world-renowned musician or a critically-acclaimed novelist? In 1997, Gary McPherson decided to study musicians—namely, what exactly contributed to a successful musician. Was it practice? Genetics? Environment? He studied 157 randomly selected kids as they picked and learned a musical instrument. Some went on to be professional musicians and others quit playing after they left school. He was looking for patterns. Were there traits or characteristics that all of the successful musicians had?

Amazingly, it was not the obvious ones. It was not IQ, aural sensitivity, math skills, natural rhythm or even their parents that dictated success. There was only one question that provided a clue to indicate which students would be successful and which wouldn’t. He asked each participant before they even selected their instrument one question:

“How long do you think you will play the instrument you choose?”

The answer to this question predicted whether or not a student would be successful. If they thought they would play an instrument their whole life, they did better. If they thought they would only play temporarily, they did not play as well. Their success had nothing to do with skills—it was all about their attitude!

We do not need any inherent skills to be able to be good at what we do. We only need an attitude that we are going to stick with it. Our minds and skill-set will grow with us as we stick to our goals. How can we use McPherson’s study in our own life?

For over 40 years, John C. Maxwell has inspired individuals to live out leadership. His valued advice to leaders is:

“Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.” – John C. Maxwell


Leaders decide they are and will be awesome.

Throw away unhelpful mindsets like “I wouldn’t be good at,” or “I could never.” Decide to be awesome at what you do–because you are!

Skill #13: Don’t Explain, Question

What are the conversations you have with yourself in your head? Researcher Albarracín Senay thought self-talk would be an interesting angle to study. He wanted to see if the sentence structure or the types of words our mind uses to talk to ourselves changes our plans and actions. He decided to test this by having participants in his experiment work on a set of anagrams where they had to change the words (like kale to lake). Before participants did this, Senay asked one group to simply think about whether they would work on anagrams, and he asked the other groups to think about the fact that they would be doing anagrams soon. The first group went into wondering mode: “Will I?” and the second group was gearing up their will to do something: “I will.”

Which group do you think did better? The group with the wondering minds did many more anagrams than the willful group! Participants who made their minds open were more successful than those who were trying to will themselves. This seems illogical. Our will should make us more successful not less, right? Not always. Freedom of choice was given to the wonderers, and this might be an intrinsic motivation to do better.

Senay tried this again by having two groups of participants write out the statements: “Will I?” and “I will.” They then had to work on anagrams. Again, the “Will I?” group performed better. Senay also wanted to try a real life experiment. To do this, he had participants think about “Will I?” or “I will” before exercising. “Will I?” again produced a better commitment from volunteers to exercise. When they were asked about their new goals, those who had been primed in wondering mode stated positive motivations for exercise like wanting to feel healthy and have a good lifestyle. While those who were trying to assert their will, stated reasons like guilt and shame for not working out!


Leaders ask themselves, ask others and ask the world.

Instead of willing yourself to achieve, question yourself to success.

Skill #14: Drive With Your Core

Over the course of six years, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras conducted a study at Stanford Graduate School of Business where they analyzed data on companies who were founded prior to 1950 (thus lasted through several eras) and reached exceptional levels of success. From their study, they discovered surprising patterns that allowed visionary companies to surpass their competition. One of the key characteristics that sets visionary companies apart from their competition is that they have a core ideology in place that drives almost every decision they make.

You can think of a core ideology like a vision statement except it’s much more actionable. It’s your values and the reasons why you do what you do; it’s what motivates you to keep going in hard times and embodies the factors you think about when making life’s most important decisions.

Whether you’re a big company like HP developing innovative new technology or a parent trying to raise your children as best as you can, having a clear, written core ideology can help you make decisions and prevent you from doing things you may regret, because whenever you are in a situation where you don’t know what to do, your core ideology is there to guide you. You just have to make the decision that most closely matches your ideals.

How do you create a core ideology?

  • Make a list of your moral and ethical values.
  • Add the characteristics you value most (ex. creativity, compassion, friendly, work ethic, etc.)
  • Use those values and traits to create an actionable statement that embodies who you want to be and what you want to do with your life.

Don’t worry about making it perfect. Your core ideology is purely for you and can be whatever you want it to be as long as it’s capable of guiding your life.


Read all 5 of the findings from Collins and Porras’s amazing study.

Skill #15: Understand the Science of Gender Differences

Men and women are wired differently. If you know how, it gives you an incredible leg up to leverage both gender’s strengths and weaknesses. Researchers Annis and Nesbitt found that these gender differences are neurological. Men and women actually think differently.

This means that men and women are processing differently during meetings, breaks and tasks. Women also develop their pre-frontal cortex at a younger age, which is why they take fewer risks as teenagers than males of the same age. Men, on the other hand, have a larger amygdala, which means they have more processing power for threats. This means that men tend to default to thinking about threats and competition, while women have more processing power for details and connecting issues.

This is why women often will include more details in their decision making, and they’ll verbalize those details during meetings or in conversations. This often is misinterpreted by male peers to mean that women’s deliberations take more time, when they actually do not.


Leaders understand our natural communication differences and leverage them — as opposed to ignoring them.

Every good leader must be well-versed in the main gender differences and practice utilizing them on their teams. Watch our video to see all 6.

Bonus: Women in leadership positions have special tips they should leverage.

Skill #16: They Are Happier

I’m going to tell you something crazy, and you’re not going to believe me. But it’s the hard truth:

Success doesn’t bring happiness. Happiness brings success.

The research on happiness is clear: if we want to be more successful, we should focus on happiness. If you’re like me, you have frequently thought, “When I achieve ___, I will be happy.” or “After I get ___, then I’ll be happy.” This doesn’t work! We have been studying happiness for over 4 years at our lab, asking people inappropriately personal questions, comparing their results and looking for patterns.

Leaders are happier.

One of the biggest happy aha-moments we had was realizing that the best leaders don’t put happiness second. They understand that if they are happier, the people around them will be happier, they will be better communicators and have a bigger impact.


Leaders know that if they don’t prioritize their happiness, no one else will.

Don’t put your happiness second. You deserve to find joy–invest in it and success will follow.

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