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Babbling leaders

“Charlie is not just a natural leader but also a great listener.”

This quote is from a flyer for a local election in my area (the name has been changed). I think it’s an interesting insight into what characteristics people think makes a leader. That Charlie can be both a leader and a listener makes me wonder if a leader is someone who doesn’t listen. Or is leading the opposite of listening, and is a leader someone who talks a lot? There may be something to this, that leaders are talkers.

The late Bernard Bass is probably the greatest leadership researcher to date. Bernie has some serious cred when it comes to leadership and leadership studies; when he retired, he was the most cited scholar in the world (quite an achievement). His initial work was published in 1949 when he concluded for a leaderless group; there was a very strong relationship between how long someone spoke for and the leadership ratings of that person by others in their group. His research was in response to organisations using the “Leaderless Group Discussion” as a way to select leaders (apparently, it started with the German navy in the 1920s, and after the war, the practice was being used in the private and public sector as well as the military).

Bass tested the “Leaderless Group Discussion” using groups of university students discussing a topic while they are being observed by another group of students. The time each person was talking was recorded, and both participants and observers gave ratings of participants on items including; “Whom you think led the discussion”, “Whom you think most influenced the other participants in the discussion”, “Whom you like best” (which feels like an oddly phrased question to ask for this type of work). The discussions were repeated, and the participants and observers were mixed around based on specific rules.

Bass concluded that in these groups, many tasks needed to be carried out for the discussion to progress (including; initiation or formulation of the problems and goals, clarifying other individuals’ responses, obtaining the group’s agreement and formulating conclusions), that some people took on several of these tasks and doing so increased the amount of speaking time of these participants and consequently they were rated more highly as leaders by both observers and participants. These results have been replicated many times, so there looked to be a strong relationship between talking time and leadership. The effect was named the “babble hypothesis” (or the “crapping on” hypothesis in Australia – yes, that is a joke).

Bass didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the results of his studies, mainly that speaking time alone made people think someone was a leader. Later in his career, Bass qualified the relationship between talking and leadership. Citing several studies that had been done since his original work, he argued that it is what is said as well as how much was spoken that mattered. Which kind of goes along with the original studies Bass did, where the leader was someone who took on specific tasks for the group, so they would have been talking about those topics. This conclusion changes the babble hypothesis to be more than “the person who talks the most is thought to be the leader” to something like “the person who makes the most useful contribution to the discussion is thought to be the leader”.

This perspective reminds me of the words of the late philosopher-poet J Brown

Like a dull knife
Just ain’t cutting
Just talking loud
Then saying nothing

It’s not enough to be babbling to be considered a leader, you need to be babbling usefully.

I think this conclusion that a leader is a useful babbler feels more comfortable than the leader being the person who babbles the most. I know I have experienced people who talk and talk (I might even say “crap on”) and there’s no way I think they are leaders. It’s good to know that people take in the content of what others are babbling about and use this to form their ideas on who are leaders. It would be disappointingly shallow of us (or those who were in these studies) to have “speaking time” as the sole criterion for leadership.

Unfortunately, we may be so shallow that speaking time is the criterion for leadership. A recent study from the USA ( concluded that the expertise factors did not affect leadership emergence, it was just talking time. So this revises the babble hypothesis back to “the person who talks the most is thought to be the leader”.

Where do these talkative leaders come from?

There is a strong relationship between extroversion and leadership emergence (leadership emergence is when there is no leader in a group and, over time, someone starts to be considered the leader by the members of the group) and perhaps, we can understand why this happens because of the babble hypothesis. People who are more extroverted are going to be more likely to start conversations or at least be more comfortable speaking in groups. The babble hypothesis proposes that people who do more talking in groups, no matter what they are saying, are more likely to be considered leaders by group members. So extroverted people will talk more and consequently be considered the leaders of the group.

Unfortunately, there is also a relationship between feeling uncomfortable communicating and speaking time. Shy people are less likely to be considered leaders because they are less likely to speak up (perhaps they are spoken over by those who are more willing to speak, this is just speculation though). A recently published study from the University of Queensland ( demonstrated that more introverted people who were “acting extraverted” emerged as leaders (to act extraverted the participant needed to show more energy, talk more, be active, sociable and assertive) and acting extraverted didn’t have any adverse outcomes for these people (meaning that even though they behaved in a way that was not how they normally would behave they felt ok afterwards).

What about Charlie?

What might all this tell us about Charlie? As a general conclusion, I think we can assume Charlie is a talker. Because he is a talker, others think of him as a leader (babble hypothesis in action). Charlie may also behave like those “acting extroverted” in the University of Queensland study, being more sociable and assertive. So is that all there is to leadership? The people who do the talking are the ones doing the leading? This feels a little hollow to me.

What might this mean for us? If we are shy and want to be thought of as a leader, we need to talk more and (based on the Uni of Queensland results) be more energetic, assertive and sociable. According to the babble hypothesis, that’s all we need to do. Like other factors influencing leader selection or endorsement, the babble hypothesis is only part of the story.

Now we know about the babble hypothesis, we can also respond to it. When we are working on something complex (and who isn’t), and we need to get a range of ideas and information, those of us who are more likely to speak up really need to do the opposite and STFU. This may give the more reticent speakers some space to contribute. An alternative is to use the power of talkativeness to invite others to speak up. An invitation to contribute doesn’t ensure people will, so maybe having a dedicated facilitator who can help this happen is a useful practice; maybe even behaving as a servant leader rather than a talking leader may help in these situations.


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