By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter
FORTUNE — The quest for an ideal leader seems to be on just about everyone’s mind, as new Fortune 500 CEOs settle into their positions and the rest of the country ramps up for an election year.
President Obama is already starting to sound like he’s running for office, not just occupying one. Meg Whitman recently stepped into the CEO spot at HP (hpq), and a disgruntled board at Yahoo (yhoo) recently ousted its CEO Carol Bartz.
We are quick to complain about the choices that leaders make, yet in many cases, we pick these leaders. We can’t justifiably claim that we were swindled every time we elect a leader who goes against our best interests, so there must be some reason we choose leaders with characteristics we later realize we don’t actually want.
In fact, we tend to elect people who are more inclined to behave in ways that can harm followers, a new study from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management suggests. In a series of studies, Kellogg professor Robert Livingston found that group members who see their team in competition with another will elect aggressive, dominant leaders that can best position the group against an outside threat.
“If you need Genghis Khan, there’s no real risk in this behavior,” says Livingston. But in the real world, leaders don’t just defend against enemies; they must also take care of their people.
Unfortunately, the process that we use to select leaders can gloss over the characteristics that put the group’s needs first, such as empathy for group members. Debates during an election, for example, tend to highlight hot-button issues and talking points that play to constituents’ emotions. Discussions that aim for an emotional response from listeners can cover up the most important qualities in our leaders, including how they respond, in real time, to high-pressure situations.
Some companies are reshaping their hiring processes to select for traits that truly reflect good leadership qualities, says Jeffrey Cohn, a succession planning expert and author of the book Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? Members of hiring committees from some companies have begun to talk to a candidate’s previous employees and colleagues to see how he or she motivates people, expresses empathy, and voices a vision that translate into specific, achievable goals for other members of the organization.
Cohn has worked with transportation company Ryder to refine its leadership search process. In 2009, Ryder identified four criteria that were deal-breakers for leaders: character, judgment, results, and the ability to form relationships. Then, the company’s management outlined exactly how to tell if people had those traits, and it now will only hire the ones that do.
Ryder is one of several companies that have started to test candidates for their ability to think on their feet, posing difficult questions and situations during the interview process. Questions are structured in such a way that they cut through the smoke screen of a candidate that is charismatic but inept, says Greg Greene, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Ryder.
The best hiring processes not only force candidates to respond to tough questions, but probe the reasons behind those responses. What drives their thinking, what makes them tick, and does that match the mission of the company?
But most of us want to follow our gut about picking good leaders. The problem is that our guts often trick us. “We get really seduced by someone’s charm and intellect,” Cohn says, “and we think that means they’re going to be able to use good judgment and make effective decisions.”
Part of the confusion stems from a misunderstanding behind the meaning of a leader’s behavior. “People think that people who make them feel good are good,” Livingston says. In his research, Livingston describes this phenomenon as confusing social behavior with something called pro-social behavior.
People who have good social behavior can control the dynamic in a room. They’re often outspoken and affable. They tend to emerge naturally as leaders in a group setting. These people have dominant personalities, Livingston says, and they often put themselves before the group. But it is in a group’s best interest to elect a leader who also demonstrates pro-social behavior, which takes much more careful consideration on behalf of the group, since pro-social people aren’t usually the most dominant.
The ideal leader would be able to defend a group, be it a company or a country, against outside competition, and also prioritize the group’s needs above any individual needs. Those traits can hide under other, more obvious ones such as charm, dominance, and persuasive speech. But it’s up to voters, hiring committees, and other decision makers to demand a selection process that reveals the leadership traits that actually matter. After all, if our vote puts a less-than-ideal person in power, part of the blame rests with us.