The "Leadership Personality"

Don't be a Dodo

During a workshop the other night I was asked what personality type I encountered most frequently in my work with leaders as an executive coach. After reflecting for a moment, I responded that while I've worked with many good leaders of each type, I seem to end up with working most frequently with Eights, Nines, and Threes. There was some surprise to this, and people started saying things like, "Really? I thought there would be more _____s." I was quick to point out that there is no ideal leadership personality and that were many reasons why I may have encountered this distribution, including pure chance or the fact that most of my work comes from word of mouth and people are inclined to take suggestions from people who are like them. 

The truth is, I don't think that any personality style is necessarily better suited to leadership than others, and that there is no ideal personality profile for a leader. Leadership success has many factors, and personality is only a part of the picture. I've seen extreme introverts who were successful and extreme extroverts who were effective leaders; I've seen very charismatic leaders succeed and fail, and leaders with no charisma at all succeed and fail.  I've also seen leaders who were highly effective in one set of circumstances fail miserably in another.

As far as I can tell, there are many, many characteristics that in one way or another factor into leadership success, but circumstances dictate which of those characteristics are required at any given time. Thus, introverted leaders can be successful as long as circumstances don't require more extraversion. Leaders without charisma can be successful as long as circumstances don't require more charisma. What works here may not necessarily work there; what works today may not work tomorrow.

Thus, I would argue that the single most important leadership characteristic is adaptability--the ability to shift from non-adaptive patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior to adaptive patterns of the same.

This is why understanding personality is so important--not because some personalities are better at some things than others, but because habitual personality patterns keep us locked in old patterns and create obstacles to adapting to the changing demands around us. If we don't thoroughly understand those patterns it is more difficult to change. 

When I work with a client I help them see how their preferred strategy keeps them stuck and how they can rewrite that strategy so that they can adapt and become more flexible. If a client is trapped in a maladaptive narrative about what it means to be, say, striving to be peaceful, we work to broaden that definition and help them overcome the internal obstacles they create to behavioral change. They learn, for example, that by addressing conflict when it is small they can have more inner peace in the long run. We work within the client's inherent value system so they embrace change rather than reject it.

Everyone can be a better leader, no matter what their personality style. The best leaders learn to understand that, but also hold their personality lightly and they are willing to be more flexible while still being committed to their fundamental values. Those who refuse to change, rigidly embracing their personality as it is and always was rather than being willing to adapt, tend to go the way of the Dodo bird.

Click here for a follow up post, The "Leadership Personality" Part 2.