Routes to the top: leadership development via dominance and prestige

How do you become a leader? One traditional view of status and leadership involves assertive, forceful, and potentially aggressive behavior. Indeed, such dominance-based leadership can be effective in some circumstances. But–luckily for those of us who aren’t natural “alpha male” types–dominance is not the only way to be a successful, admired leader. In recent decades, psychology and evolutionary anthropology research has provided substantial evidence that  people can achieve status with a different leadership development strategy: building prestige.

Instead of relying on coercion or force, the prestige route to status and leadership relies on intelligence and expertise. Anthropologists have shown that throughout human history there have been “Big Man” leaders who attract people to them through sharing skills that benefit others. The broader scientific theory is that it is crucial for society to learn complex skills, so the human mind has evolved to feel deferential towards those who possess complex knowledge or skills they can share. 

So what leadership development strategies can you use to build your prestige leadership skills or implement dominance leadership wisely? In this post, we’ll walk you through steps to gain respect and admiration from others based on sharing your expertise. Specifically we’ll discuss how to:

  • Assess your own style of pursuing status
  • Identify strategies for leadership development through increasing prestige
  • Implement strategies for leadership development through increasing dominance

As always, our team of researchers has reviewed dozens of scientific studies from organizational psychology, anthropology, and behavioral economics to provide you with practical, science-based tips on how to implement leadership development strategies to cultivate prestige leadership.


What’s your leadership strategy: dominance or prestige?

leadership strategy

source – pexels

Whether you tend to have a dominance or prestige leadership style, is in part, based on your personality. So many people may find one set of leadership development strategies comes more naturally to them. Step one to developing your personal leadership style is to get a sense of where you currently fall along the spectrums of dominance and prestige. 

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Think about how you’ve led in the past. Leadership development is most natural when it leverages your existing skills and abilities. Ask a colleague, friend, or family member if they can recall a time when you were asked to take responsibility for a situation or direct others. How did they perceive you at that time? What did they think you did well? Did they see you as relying on the force of your personality–the confidence and resolve of a more typical “alpha” prototype? Or did they see you as relying on your authority as an expert–a person who has special knowledge to get the job done? Note what they thought your strengths (and weaknesses) were.

Take the test. Another simple way to assess yourself is to rate the following statements on a scale of 1 to 7, from “not true of me” to “very true of me.”

  1. My coworkers and friends respect and admire me.
  2. Other people know to let me have my way.
  3. Other people seek my advice.
  4. I try to control other people, rather than allow people to control me.
  5. Other people value my opinion.
  6. I have a forceful personality.


  • Prestige: Add up the numbers (1 to 7) you gave yourself on items 1, 3, and 5
  • Dominance: Add up the numbers (1 to 7) you gave yourself on items 2, 4, and 6

Assess whether you score higher for prestige or dominance, and consider whether you’d like to develop either leadership style. (Note: items from this scale were adapted from Cheng et al., 2013.)


Leadership development strategies for prestige

leadership development strategies

source – pixabay

Demonstrate your expertise. Gaining leadership via prestige is all about gaining the admiration and respect of others because of the skills and knowledge you bring to the table. Your focus should be on sharing and helping rather than bragging or showing off. Indeed, people often dislike those who appear to be self-promoting. So be sure to demonstrate your expertise in a way that matches the situation and helps others.

To implement a leadership development strategy focused on this route, you could: 

Answer complex questions based on your expertise. People respect those who “know their stuff.” If someone is asking for help on slack with a problem you know how to deal with, or someone is assigned a task they have never done before but you have experience with, you can reach out to offer a hand. 

This is a good way of showing that you know what you’re doing while earning the goodwill of your colleagues. In one study, researchers followed a group of 180 MBA students working in small groups over the course of eight weeks. After that period, they asked participants to report on who they would go to for help. Those who would be asked for help more were rated as having higher status. 

In another study of 306 MBA students, perceived generosity was highly correlated with social status–having a relationship over four times stronger than that of extraversion. This suggests that being helpful was a much better way to gain status than being outgoing.

Work  through a problem with a colleague. If you see someone needs a hand, but you don’t have direct experience, you can offer to act as a sounding board to talk the problem over. Sometimes people get stuck when trying to solve a problem, and all they need is another perspective–or the experience of organizing their thoughts to explain the problem to someone else–to generate a new idea. 

In this case, you’re acting for the benefit of the group, even though dealing with the problem isn’t your direct responsibility. This may not demonstrate new knowledge, but it does demonstrate a capacity for working through problems and a motivation to help others. Researchers studying economic decision-making found that when an individual was deciding whether to help another person (give them money), they would often seek and use information about whether they had been helpful to other people in the past. More broadly, this fits into the theory of “indirect reciprocity” from evolutionary biology: successful cooperation emerges from people selectively being helpful to those who have a reputation for helping the group.

Present insights you’ve gained to the group. If you’ve worked through a problem that’s common at your organization, or if you’ve recently learned new information or skills that could benefit your team (e.g., from attending a training or conference), share your knowledge. 

Find some time to present your insights to the broader group. This can be for a few minutes during a normally scheduled meeting, or you can create a meeting specifically for people who you think might benefit the most. Bringing people together to share insights demonstrates both your competence and your prosocial attitude. As an added benefit, you might find that others have ideas or solutions to the problem that you can use in some of your own problems.


Organize Others

organize Others

source – pixabay

Prestige-based leadership also involves taking a prosocial approach to the group. One way to demonstrate this is by helping others coordinate. Here are some ways you can implement this leadership development strategy:

Create and organize a workshop or discussion group around common issues people are facing. At any given organization, there are likely many people facing the same or similar issues. These people are all looking for ways to solve their problems independently, potentially leading to inefficiency. Finding ways to bring people with a common problem, to solve it for the group, is something a good leader does. 

Many people are insecure about the idea of inviting others to something they’ve organized. Ownership is risky, because outcomes are tied to the person who “owned” the event. If you can bring people together to discuss a common problem, you are helping others. You’re taking responsibility for the group, so that they don’t have to. You don’t need to have a solution, you just need to be willing to get the right people in the room. If you’re nervous about this, remember that people like to have their point of view heard. Research has shown that when someone is using active listening in an interaction (versus not), then the person being listened to tends to like the listener better and to retain more of the information.

Connect people to build skills and collaborate. You can organize coworkers to help solve a common problem. Increasingly in the workplace, however, people face new challenges–whether it’s because of changing technology or changing circumstances. (Think of all the small surprises life threw at us while working during a global pandemic.) 

The overall health of an organization therefore involves helping people to build the capacity to meet new challenges, whether by learning new skills together or by developing working relationships with people who have complementary skills. To do this, you can create a “reading group” centered around a particular issue or new technology. You could also create a “collaboration group” where people present problems they’re dealing with to get feedback from others.

Create a space for people to connect socially–virtual coffee, work lounges, and other spaces. Certain spaces are more intellectually productive than others. These are often places where ideas cross-pollinate, with individuals working in different areas of an organization run into each other informally. 

For example, MIT’s Building 20 was a temporary space erected in 1943 that housed individuals from numerous disciplines who wouldn’t ordinarily be working side-by-side, including physicists, linguists, educators, and electrical engineering. It was known as a “magical incubator” of breakthrough ideas, where Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics, nine Nobel Prize winners in physics worked, and Amar Bose did research that would later lead to the founding of the Bose Corporation. The free exchange of ideas and slightly less rule-bound atmosphere of the building is credited with helping create this culture of innovation. 

All this is to say that informal connections that occur over coffee (or around the water cooler, or wherever people congregate to take breaks) can often be vital to creating an innovative environment. While remote workers likely have fewer opportunities for such meetings in person, you can still organize a time for people from different groups to chat and share ideas informally online. Consider scheduling a weekly virtual coffee, work meetup, or social activity.


Leadership strategies for increasing dominance

dominance through leadership

source – pixabay

As noted above, whereas prestige leadership relies more on intelligence and expertise, dominance relies more on force and even aggression. But this does not mean that dominance leadership is necessarily bad. In fact, it can be helpful in some situations. Early research found that the traditional dominance style of leadership was more important in predicting who was seen as a leader than intelligence. And research finds that people prefer dominant leaders in situations where people feel less control over their environments, and in environments where conflict occurs between groups–for example, when your organization is directly competing with outside organizations. 

So in addition to developing as a prestige leader, it is helpful to implement leadership development strategies that build your tools to be an effective dominance leader. 

In business contexts, who gets to make key decisions about resources–like who has to work late or who gets a raise–is clearly defined. Yet the status associated with a role, like manager, doesn’t determine completely the status of the particular person in the role. Managers can have relatively low status, while non-managers can have relatively high status.

The following strategies might help you gain more status through holding people accountable and taking action.  

Hold People Accountable. Dominance is a route to social status that involves using control over resources to punish or reward others. Intuitively, we might think of this as someone strong taking control of something that others have, in a bullying way. Yet using control over resources to shape others’ behaviors doesn’t have to be negative. Instead, it focuses more concretely on providing clear and consistent consequences for actions. 

Note that, unless you have some degree of authority already, you might not be able to implement all of these.

Provide clear and consistent benefits for good performance. The “Employee of the Month” award is the subject of comedy now, but the idea behind it is one we should take seriously: people want recognition for doing a job well. That recognition can be concrete, in the form of a pay increase or a bonus. It can also be in the form of recognition from peers and supervisors. Announcing to the organization or someone’s work group when they have done a good job leverages your position of authority or independence to deliver a benefit to good members of the organization.

Provide consequences for negative behaviors. Providing negative feedback to others can be very difficult. Most people avoid doing it. People receiving negative feedback can take criticism as a personal attack, generalizing it beyond the single incident and thinking that it applies to their overall character or abilities. However, getting clear and consistent negative feedback is necessary for people to avoid forming bad work habits. 

Good leadership involves some coaching, including expressing displeasure when an individual isn’t pulling their weight. Simply ensure the feedback is specific, constructive, fair, and delivered in a considerate manner. Conveying a message of criticism, or implementing a punishment–like the need to stay late or improve in a given time–is a difficult task, but success at this is key to strong leadership development.

Be biased towards taking action. Being aggressive in business often means being willing to take decisive action. That might not allow for enough time to develop a consensus. When you see an opportunity that is time-sensitive, and that you believe can make a big difference to your organization, pursue it. This bias towards action, or willingness to make risky decisions, is a principle taught by several modern business consultants for achieving success in fast-moving fields. Leadership development involves learning when to take these actions to help build trust in your judgment.


Summary of routes to the top: leadership development via dominance and prestige

Leadership development involves gaining the trust and confidence of those you hope to influence and lead (another post on 3 steps to improve your circle of influence). Psychological theory suggests that people can do this, broadly, through two “routes.” One is the Prestige Route, which involves winning others’ admiration and respect through demonstrating expertise and a commitment to the group’s wellbeing. The second is the Dominance Route, which involves gaining others’ acquiescence, in part, by controlling rewards and punishments. Both routes can increase an individual’s status, and both can be helpful.

Leadership development strategies to boost prestige include:

  • Demonstrating your expertise by answering questions, working through problems with others, and presenting your insights, and
  • Organizing others by creating workshops or discussion groups, connecting people, and creating spaces to connect socially.

Leadership development strategies to improve dominance include:

  • Holding people accountable by providing benefits and consequences, and 
  • Being biased towards taking action.

Good leadership involves knowing about these routes, and understanding when to emphasize one set of tactics versus the other.