Leaders have disproportionate impact on the outcomes of their organizations. When good leaders are in place, organizations and their constituents thrive. Conversely, when bad leaders are in place, organizations and their constituents suffer. For this reason, organizations spend a great deal of effort to get the right leaders into place.
The Problem: Emergence vs. Effectiveness
Unfortunately, much of the advice about identifying and developing great leaders is flawed because it fails to distinguish leadership emergence from leadership effectiveness. Leadership emergence concerns the ability to get into a leadership position, whereas leadership effectiveness concerns the ability to build and maintain a high-performing team. With only a moment’s consideration, it is apparent that these two concepts have different implications for leadership performance, but few attend to this distinction.
by Ryne A. Sherman, PhD, Chief Science Officer,
Join Ryne Sherman and AESC CEO Karen Greenbaum for a Members-Only Webinar, Navigating the Unknown: Versatility's Role in Effective Leadership October 5, 2023
Personality concerns the characteristic ways in which a person thinks, feels, and behaves, and personality psychology attempts to understand these individual differences. Many studies have examined the relationship between personality and leadership, but most simply compare the personality characteristics of those in leadership positions to those who are not. As a result, we know that people who are extraverted, conscientiousness, open to ideas, and emotionally controlled are more likely to get into leadership positions. These are emergent leaders. However, we know little about the personality characteristics of effective leaders. Who builds and maintains a high-performing team?
Possible Indicators of Leadership Effectiveness
One challenge to studying leadership is that effectiveness is more difficult to operationalize than emergence. We can operationalize emergence by assessing an individual’s rank within an organization, but rank doesn’t tell us how well that individual’s team performs. Some might suggest indicators of effectiveness to be stock market value (for publicly traded companies), sales volume, profitability, return on assets, etc. But industry trends, macroeconomics, and timing can confound these. For instance, using stock market value as an indicator would point to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch as one of the best all-time corporate leaders. Yet the fallout from his leadership practices was felt by GE just a few years after he left—and GE has never recovered.
A simple alternative to these indicators begins with the recognition people who work with a leader have a good idea of who is effective at leading. Moreover, a leader’s reputation among peers is easily operationalized and quantified in the form of responses to the statement, “This person is an effective leader.” With this knowledge in mind, Robert Kaiser, president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, and I created a dataset of leadership reputation and personality data for 2,410 corporate executives and managers. We analyzed this dataset with a simple question in mind: what are the personality characteristics of effective leaders? The answer surprised us.
The most effective leaders are those who can adapt to circumstances, adjust their typical behavioral patterns, and adopt a different behavioral style for each situation.
Personality Profile of the Effective Leader
We began our investigation by looking at simple relationships between personality and reputation. Sure enough, we found plenty of those. Leaders who scored high on the Hogan Personality Inventory’s Ambition scale were seen by their peers to “speak up,” “be aggressive about growth,” “assume authority,” and “make bold moves.” Leaders who scored high on the HPI’s Interpersonal Sensitivity scale were seen by their peers to “show appreciation,” “be sensitive to people’s feelings,” “rely on input,” and “treat people well.” Those who scored high on the HPI’s Prudence scale were seen to “go by the book,” “be organized,” “be process oriented,” and “be conservative about risk.”
Having established a clear relationship between personality and leadership behavior at work, we sought to build a personality profile of the effective leader. The surprise? Using sophisticated machine learning techniques, the best personality profile we could produce only correlated with peer-rated leadership effectiveness at r = .17. For relative comparison, the correlation between personality and leadership emergence is r = .54. While r = .17, isn’t r = .00 (no relationship), it certainly was not the relationship we were expecting. In other words, we found that personality was predicting how these leaders behaved at work, but it was not doing a particularly good job at predicting which were most effective.
The Role of Versatility
As we dug deeper into the data, we found out why. Personality was not just telling us how these leaders behaved at work; it was also telling us when their behavior went too far, crossing the line from effective to ineffective. While ambitious leaders were more likely to “speak up” and “be aggressive about growth,” they were also more likely to ignore others’ feelings and input, perhaps without knowing it. Likewise, while interpersonally sensitive leaders were “showing appreciation” and “treating people well,” they were also “backing down easily” and failing to “push people hard.” They weren’t holding people accountable for getting results.
As we continued our exploration, we found only one behavioral pattern (or metacompetency) that predicted leadership effectiveness: versatility. Leaders who adopted a versatile behavioral repertoire—sometimes behaving in ways incongruent with their personality—were most likely to be effective. The relationship between versatility and leadership effectiveness was extremely strong: r = .72.
Can Leaders Develop Versatility?
Being an effective leader is not about adopting a single behavioral pattern, nor is it about having the “right” personality and sticking to a typical mode of operating. Instead, the most effective leaders are those who can adapt to circumstances, adjust their typical behavioral patterns, and adopt a different behavioral style for each situation. That is, the most effective leaders are aware of their own tendencies.
Ambitious leaders who are most effective can identify when it is right to dial it back, check on staff, and show people that they care. Prudent leaders who are effective realize when they are overfocusing on the details and need to consider the bigger picture. Thus, the first step to leadership effectiveness is to gain awareness of your own personality tendencies, to understand the situations where your typical approach won’t get the best results. This research shows us that, with strategic self-awareness, most people can become effective leaders.