Despite all of the resources available to leaders today—books, articles, seminars, coaching and training programs—employees remain dissatisfied with leadership, their jobs and the future. After decades of attention paid to building better leaders, overall workforce distaste and distrust show little improvement. The managerial mindset is also stagnant.
Only 28% of executives think their leaders’ decisions are generally good, reveals a 2009 McKinsey & Company Global Survey. Trends in trust, loyalty and employee satisfaction would point upward if the solution was as simple as improving leadership techniques or corporate practices.
Traditional approaches to leadership development merely scratch the surface. The real issues occur at foundational levels and are remedied only when directly addressed. Methods and practices are important, but companies benefit only when they delve into leadership personality.
The Complexities of Personality
Researchers have exposed a profound truth: While stock prices, market share and material assets are important, softer factors determine true organizational strength. Employee engagement, job satisfaction and creativity play greater roles in performance, effectiveness and profitability.
Leadership personality and style are the most crucial factors in organizational strength, asserts psychologist and leadership consultant Ron Warren, PhD, in Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017). Human personality traits have remained constant throughout history, so any progress in leadership training depends on addressing them.
The spectrum is extremely complex, with experts debating its intricacies and nuances. Dr. Warren cites five behavioral traits that determine whether leaders will be beneficial or detrimental to their organizations. Each includes a pair of opposing behaviors:
Every leader is an amalgam of these behaviors, exhibited along a spectrum. Dr. Warren harnesses the power of these behaviors in four key personality dimensions that affect organizational success:
Socially intelligent leaders are known for their interpersonal skills, relational aptitude and positivity. These personality traits are most beneficial to leading people effectively.
Sociability comes easily to people-oriented leaders. Relationships are important to them, and interactions allow them to express care, kindness and support. They regard people as more than resources; they’re coworkers, even family.
Communication skills are more critical to organizational effectiveness than IQ or past accomplishments, emphasizes Alex “Sandy” Pentland, PhD, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, in “The New Science of Building Teams” (Harvard Business Review, April 2012).
Socially intelligent leaders are humble and flexible enough to value others’ views, and are open to feedback. Employees who work for open-minded leaders feel valued, which boosts morale and productivity.
Leaders who struggle with social intelligence have strained careers, but they can learn to shift their mindset toward the relational end of the scale.
The Deference Dilemma
Deference in leadership presents as complacency or a lack of assertiveness. Leaders who defer to others seek to avoid confrontation and approach their role with passivity. Overly humble or timid, they struggle with an inner turmoil that creates problems for their organizations. Deference can be attributed to ongoing challenges, a sense of futility or disdain for parts of the job.
These leaders ultimately become needy. They seek affirmation, try to fit in and crave acceptance. They often compromise to keep the peace and work overtime to avoid rocking the boat.
Leaders who defer yearn for safety and hope to avoid intimidating situations. They shy away from taking a stand, are better followers than leaders, and respond reactively rather than proactively. Work is severely compromised in a setting that appears peaceful, but which actually lacks direction, determination and vision. Staffers endure significant stress as they question their purpose and future.
Deference increases leaders’ internal tension, anxiety and self-doubt. As problems mount, they take on a life of their own, and a vicious cycle develops. Self-assessment is ineffective in this situation; a trusted colleague, mentor or experienced executive coach can help overcome bias, blind spots and deferential tendencies.
Of the four key personality dimensions, dominance has the greatest potential to impede organizational effectiveness. Self-centered by nature, dominant leaders need to control everyone and everything around them. While their passion, decisiveness and drive have occasional benefits, inflexibility and an overbearing nature is extremely harmful.
When passion becomes all-out competitiveness, a win-at-all-cost philosophy spreads. Winning over circumstances is one thing; winning over challengers or rivals is another. Leaders bent on defeating those who stand in their way can debilitate—or even destroy—a company.
Dominant leaders are intrinsically hostile, resentful and prone to feeling persecuted. They are also rigid, stubborn and always want to be right. These leaders make business matters personal, exhibiting an opinionated, pushy or authoritarian style.
Behavior must be addressed before consequences become irreparable. Training and coaching can help maintain leadership drive and zeal, while keeping ego-driven excesses in check. Anger management training may be another option.
Leaders with grit—or “task mastery,” as Dr. Warren calls it—focus on execution and achievement, promoting and upholding high standards. They have a strong drive to succeed, are group-focused and pride themselves on being strongly motivational.
Personal initiative, ambition and a desire to make a difference characterize these leaders, who love to solve problems and set worthy team goals. Their people are drawn to their strength, determination and confidence.
Leaders with grit are extremely conscientious and disciplined, keenly aware of what’s best, what’s right and why. These organized and detail-oriented leaders understand the consequences of their actions and strive to provide the best outcomes for their people and organizations.
Curiosity motivates them to enjoy learning, thinking and creating. They can, however, get carried away with excitement and lose track of their leadership responsibilities. Surrounding themselves with administrative thinkers can help them avoid this trap.
Those who lack grit can work with colleagues, mentors or professional coaches to increase initiative, focus on achievement, work on planning and goal-setting, and create a vision worth pursuing. As these new skills become habits, very little prompting will be necessary. Their newfound desire for achievement will be contagious.
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