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Personality Matters for Leadership

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

People have too many choices where and how they work today for personality not to matter in leadership. Of course, it has always mattered, but people today feel more emboldened in their choice about who they follow, fueled by a post-Covid environment and shortage of talent. Because of how important personality is to leadership and how misunderstood it is, I am dedicating several blogs to this topic.

Many researchers across the centuries have studied personality, including this researcher writing this article. Most would tell you that personality is largely fixed at birth. Some don’t agree with that assertion, but most qualified experts support that premise. We measure personality by the demonstration of behaviors. I believe that we all can demonstrate any behavior we choose. If we are an introvert by nature and choice, we can wake up tomorrow and choose to demonstrate behaviors that are more akin to extroversion. The challenge is that some of our tendencies and preferences that came with us at birth are so strong that they require a tremendous amount of dedication, energy, focus, and determination to demonstrate them and definitely change them.

Most people fall short. Changing components of one’s personality is actually a big deal. However, most people don’t recognize the magnitude of effort it requires, and consequently, managers dismiss the reality of this magnitude as they assess talent. They fall short because they don’t have that energy, focus, and determination. They fall short because they aren’t willing to commit to the level of effort and intentionality required to truly change behavior or trait. Finally, they fall short because they aren’t convinced of how much a deterrent a particular trait or behavior is to their success.

Take any personality assessment as an example. Many have, at its core, shared elements. Let’s take the DiSC. Like most instruments, the DiSC is an indication of your preferences. When people disagree with the results, which after 25 years, I have found to be less than 2% of the time, I remind them that it is a self-assessment. It often takes them a minute to realize the impact of that statement. But the fact is that the instrument is valid and extremely reliable. It is also a strong predictor of future behavior. My perspective is behavior trumps assessment. People can develop compensating strategies to offset an extreme tendency in a given area. So, the instrument is not an absolute predictor, but if someone tells you they really, really, really, really hate detail (ex. very, very low “C” style) …why wouldn’t you believe them?

As the Chief Diversity Officer for two Fortune 500 Companies, I am here to tell you that many personality styles work in leadership roles. But, as the Chief Talent Officer or Head of Organizational Effectiveness or equivalent in many successful organizations, I am also here to tell you that too much of a good thing in a personality can be problematic.

For example, sticking with the DiSC, the “S” style is one of four patterns. The positive attributes of this style are people who are patient, predictable, deliberate, need and want stability, loyal, very consistent, etc. They are committed to maintaining stability. Take these behaviors to an extreme, and those folks are change-resistant, don’t deal with problem employees, are not agile, not innovative typically, etc.

One company that uses the DiSC has a tremendous portion of their population having a high “S” personality. Keep in mind that the “S” style accounts for about one-third of the world’s population. However, more than two-thirds of the leadership team in that company have a high “S” style. How easy do you think it is to bring change to that organization? How easy is it to hold people accountable in that organization? How easy do you think it is to address performance issues…and what do you think others think about you when you do? All of this is deadly to an organization’s future success and growth.

This particular organization was highly insulted when it was cautioned about the dramatic leaning of the organization toward an “S” style. They dug their heels in and turned it around that it was not them but the individual pointing this out. An extreme “S” style of being stubborn and not accepting a new idea? What are the chances? The chances are high. Take this same scenario and make the extreme style “D” where most leaders had a high “D” style. That style is known for being direct, demanding, strong-willed, driven, independent, decisive, determined, etc. Taken to an extreme, while they are very results-oriented…they can be real jerks. (Said as a high D and with many of my loved ones as a high D style.) When this same situation occurred with a group of high “D” styles…their response was … to laugh! They responded with, “Wow, no one will want to work with us.” And… “But that’s because we are so great!” They totally understood and owned the dynamics and moved on to something else.

Over-reliance on a personality instrument is not healthy either. But these tools can be a strong indicator of interview questions to ask or patterns of behavior to watch for as you run or change an organization. Unfortunately, I’ve come across some smart CEOs who discard the reality of this data and these tools used by millions around the world. Their ignorance typically enables dysfunctional behavior in their organizations. Conversely, as demonstrated by ones in my CEO study on determining leadership potential, many highly successful CEOs fully understand the value of such resources. They have come to honest reflection about the role personality plays in leadership.

The reality is we have strong patterns of behaviors that define our personality. That influences how people engage with us. If people need followers to be leaders, then our personality components that draw folks to us or repel them… matter. My next two blogs will focus on derailing personality traits and those traits that make for more effective leaders.

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