Do You Have the Personality of a Leader?

By Dr Rodney Toh, Senior Lecturer- Department of Management – Sunway University Business School

Inscribed on the ancient remains of the temple of the Greek god, Apollo, is the maxim “know thyself”. Success begins with self-mastery as some modern-day management gurus will extol, but self-mastery assumes the understanding of self.

As far as leadership is concerned, there are some elements of truth in this persistent claim of the priority of self-awareness. Self-awareness and personality are closely related.   

Although the great man theory of leadership has largely been abandoned by the mid-60s, there has been a resurgence in the trait approach to leadership in recent years.

This is mainly driven by the scholarly consensus on the efficacy of the five-factor model (FFM) of personality traits in predicting positive outcomes. Based on the FFM lens, an influential review study in 2002 of both quantitative and qualitative research has shown that extraversion and conscientiousness are positively related to leadership while neuroticism is negatively related to it.

You can determine your FFM personality profile with this open source link: https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/IPIP-BFFM/

Your results will be presented in percentile scores (i.e. from 0 to 100). For instance, if you scored 74 for extraversion, it means that your extraversion level is higher than about 74% of respondents who have completed the survey before. In this case, you have high extraversion.

Extraversion: An extravert is a person who is sociable, assertive, and active. Extraversion and leadership had the strongest connection. But not all extraverts are effective leaders because studies have shown that only those extraverts with good social skills will excel. This suggests even introverts with good social skills can do well as leaders. Furthermore, because of their outgoing dynamism, extraverts have more acquaintances but fewer close friends than they think. Developing friendship takes time and needs stability. Extraverted leaders therefore may have fewer intimate friends to confide in for emotional support.

Conscientiousness: A highly conscientious person is hardworking, persistent, reliable, and organised. Consciousness is positively linked to academic achievements, performance at work, and leadership effectiveness. Among my highly conscientious students, the one outstanding characteristic I have observed is their tendency to write down a to-do list or to have a plan in the morning or a review of their activities and accomplishments for the day at night. These are sure indications of someone who is planful and purposeful. However, there is a downside as well. Being overly conscientious may result in leaders being paralyzed by detailed analysis and overlooking the big picture.

Neuroticism: Neuroticism refers to emotional instability. It is a general predisposition to feel negative emotions such as fear, sadness, humiliation, rage, and disgust. People with high neuroticism usually suffer from mood swings that can easily be triggered by external events. As such, they are unlikely to be viewed as leadership role models. 

According to research, a small number of personality characteristics can account for the majority of how people differ from one another. In this case, your FFM personality traits can differentiate you as a leader from a non-leader. Personality traits like conscientiousness and neuroticism are constant and immune to developmental interventions. But their behavioural aspects can be managed but with considerable effort and commitment.

To put everything into perspective, remember that your personality is not the only predictor of effective leadership. Your fate is not determined by your personality. In fact, personality traits like the FFM model is one of what are called distal characteristics that predict effective leadership. Other distal characteristics include your cognitive abilities, motivation, values. For instance, it is important to understand your motivation since success is more probable if people are driven and believe change is possible. Furthermore, other predictors are proximal attributes like social skills, problem-solving skills, expert and tacit knowledge are more important for effective leadership.

Do you have the personality of a leader? It does not matter to some extent. Although some individuals may be endowed with suitable personality trait characteristics, but what is important to notice is that you can develop proximal skills like problem solving skills and gain expert knowledge through continuous education.

Proximal attributes are malleable, which means you can learn and development yourself in these areas. Similarly, important proximal skills like social acuity, political savvy, and emotion regulation skills are important for leadership adaptability to changing situational contingencies.

Summarily, higher extraversion conscientiousness, and lower neuroticism are positively related to leadership effectiveness. Distal characteristics like personality traits more stable and resistance to change. Do not forget proximal attributes like social skills, problem solving skills, expert and tacit knowledge can be developed over time.

In conclusion, because your personality is immutable, firms tend to focus on candidates’ readiness for leadership development along those proximal attributes that are more responsive to positive interventions. 

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