Some of the traits which result in a person getting to the top are obvious. Charisma in American presidents is one, working harder than average is also proven, so is moving frequently between companies, especially in the early stages. Likewise, being perceived to have powerful friends in high places (actually having them but people not knowing does not help).
Interestingly, general mental ability does not in itself result in success. It has to be combined with exceptional social skills to pay off. Of these, by far the most intriguing is chameleonism (henceforth, Cham).
A study of 139 MBA graduates followed for five years after graduation showed that ones who were Chams (or, more technically, high self-monitors) did better. Whereas non-Chams are driven from within by their values and emotions, saying to themselves, 'Who am I and how can I be me in this situation?', the Cham asks 'Who does this situation want me to be and how can I be that person?'
Chams are highly attuned to cues from their office environment and bosses as to the kind of actions and demeanour that will be praised. They are better at avoiding blame when things go wrong and claiming praise when it's not due. They are constantly networking, looking for better posts, making them twice as likely to move job and to relocate long distances to take them. They are strongly motivated by prestigious-sounding titles and being given organisational goodies which mark them out.
They operate most successfully in corporate, well-defined jobs where the rules of who to be are clearcut and they do not much care if the work interests them, per se. At the same time, because they are such flexible folk, they are especially effective in roles that span organisational boundaries. Being the middleman between workers and management, for example, suits them down to the ground. They can have a beer with the union rep or a chardonnay with their boss and play each part to perfection.
Other studies show that Chams don't make great chums. They choose friends more on the basis of shared interests than real liking. It's no big deal for them to move counties or countries for better job opportunities - they just find another friend for a few drinks.
Of course, it was ever thus, but there is evidence that modern life especially favours them. The shift towards a service economy makes measurement of real achievements ever harder, compared with manufacturing. In increasingly bureaucratic corporations and freelance workforces, being likeable and biddable is ever more crucial because promotion depends more and more on bosses' subjective, personal criteria. True productivity is hard to disentangle from skill at office politics.
It makes my skin creep to think that the world is ruled by Chams, but then, as a non-Cham, I would say that. The great consolation remains that their materialism makes them much more likely to be unhappy and mentally ill.