In any group of people, it never takes long before a natural leader emerges. You only have to watch an episode of Big Brother or The Apprentice to witness this happening. There'll be one person who either takes the initiative in a task and organises the troops, or, in the case of Big Brother, steals a housemate's underwear and runs around the room with them on his head. It's the same with sales teams minus the exhibitionism, obviously. Even if team members are all at the same level, without a recognised 'boss' a leader emerges. Why is this?

Research suggests that leaders emerge through a combination of their own outspoken behaviour and how that behaviour is perceived by others. In two studies at the University of California, the behaviour of dominant individuals and how they were perceived by others was closely observed. Naturally, there was no shortage of candidates in Tinsel Town. Also, the research showed a big gap between the actual competence of leaders and how their competence was perceived by others.

In the second study, participants were split into two groups and told to compete to solve a series of maths problems. The groups were videoed and the behaviour of their members carefully examined. They found that dominant participants tended to offer more suggestions to the group and were thus perceived as the most competent. Crucially, though, the study revealed that their dominant behaviour encouraged others to see them as competent even when their suggestions were no better. Their voice was simply heard longest and loudest and usually believed. A bit like insisting that a country has weapons of mass destruction, despite what the quieter voices may be saying to the contrary.

Of course, outside the laboratory, money and power have more to do with who leads organisations, be they corporations or nations. In reality, groups of people don't start on egalitarian terms and people don't always 'emerge' from groups of their peers on the basis of who shouts loudest and longest. Again, witness reality TV shows to see this in action. The long-time favourite often gets booted out before the end when viewers tire of their dominant behaviour and see little return for it.

Personally, I don't think it's about the quality of comments that people make, but rather the quality of the questions they ask that demonstrates to others the validity of their contribution. So if you are in a group and want to lead, ask Socratic questions. If you don't know what they are, look them up on the internet. It could be one of the best searches you ever made.

Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and author of Life's a Game to Fix the Odds.