Winston Churchill leadership personality organisational psychology

Leadership & personality: How to determine the right approach

Chris Caldwell Workplace/Wellness Psychology

No one gets behind a leader for his or her ability to budget, offer resources and delegate. These things are expected. We really get behind a leader when we warm to their character and personality!

Think about your favourite teacher for a second… You’re not thinking about the one that organised the most efficient lesson or had the best stationery, are you? You’re thinking about the teacher who had the best personality, or the one you liked most. Right? The same rules apply to leaders in the workplace.

We’ve all worked with managers we admire and want to work well for. Well… I hope we have anyway! They inspire, motivate and help us to grow. A leader’s capacity to do this well not only depends on their expertise in a certain field or the suitability of their placement. It depends on their character, style and personality.

Dimensions of personality are correlated with leadership emergence, behaviour and effectiveness. As the world of work changes and technology becomes integral – the relationships between personality and leadership have become increasingly more complex.

For example:

  • The less ‘agreeable’ leader may find it more difficult to accommodate for new ways of flexible working amongst their team members, enabled by remote working.
  • The highly ‘extraverted’ leader may find it difficult to manage a remote team, due to there being less opportunity for face-to-face interaction.

What even is personality?

Before embarking on our journey into the inner-depths of how the dimensions of personality affect leadership, it’s important that we understand what we mean by personality. The scientific community regards personality as being comprised of five dimensions:

  1. Openness to Experience – the tendency to be imaginative, unconventional and autonomous.
  2. Conscientiousness – the disposition to be dependable and organised.
  3. Extraversion – the tendency to be assertive, active and sociable.
  4. Agreeableness – being trusting of others and compliant.
  5. Neuroticism – a tendency to exhibit poor emotional stability.

This framework is generalisable across cultures. The analysis of the psychometric measurement properties of personality consistently identify these five factors as being the “big dogs” when it comes to defining our character.

The impact of openness on leadership

Openness to Experience is likely to have an influence on specific leadership behaviours by encouraging leaders to think outside the box for the benefit of their teams. Individuals who score highly in this area are more likely to engage in unique thinking. They will be agile, flexible and accepting of change. They will happily challenge the status quo, encourage debate and opposition to ideas and be open to ideas. This approach suits the modern workplace where collaboration, integration and creative thinking is encouraged.

How does conscientiousness affect leadership style?

The conscientiousness leader will typically demonstrate ethical behaviours. This is because conscientious leaders experience increased moral obligation. Conscientiousness is also likely to influence our inclination towards either being task or people oriented. Task-focussed leaders will focus more of their energies on task completion and less on softer more people-oriented behaviours. Conscientious leaders are more likely to be task-oriented and will typically be good at communicating goals clearly, delegating tasks and achieving results.

How does Extraversion affect leadership style?

Extraverted leadership behaviours are a requirement for bringing about change’ in organisations. Extraversion is also likely to have an influence on the degree to which a leader is people oriented. Extraverts get their energy from social interactions, and as such, extroverted managers are more likely to exhibit people-oriented behaviours such as recognising their team members or staying attuned to their development needs. This is an effective style for building a culture where people feel valued for their contributions.

How does agreeableness affect leadership style?

Agreeable leaders are less likely to adopt an Autocratic style of leadership. An autocratic leader is one who centralises authority, makes unilateral decisions and dictates work methods. This may be useful when a high degree of direction is required because employees may not be familiar with a given situation. For tasks that require creativity, an autocratic approach undermines motivation and the creative process by stripping away an employee’s sense of autonomy and empowerment.

Contrary to these characteristics, the agreeable individual tends to be compliant and passive. As such, agreeable leaders are less likely to use legitimisation or pressure when trying to influence others. They will typically put the need of their people and the organisation ahead of their own.

How does neuroticism affect leadership style?

The opposite of neuroticism is emotional stability, so those who are low in neuroticism are more emotionally stable. Emotionally stable leaders can remain calm under pressure which can put their team members at ease during stressful situations.

Neurotic leaders are the inverse! They are highly emotional, passionate and sometimes irrational This isn’t always a bad thing. All of this can be channelled into passion. Whilst they won’t necessarily be popular with staff, they can still be effective when it comes to results. Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs are a great example of highly successful neurotic leaders!

Strategies for success

Although personality traits may affect leadership style and behaviour, there is no ‘ideal’ personality type for being an effective leader. Different situations demand different kinds of leadership.

Disagreeable (more autocratic) leaders may be required when there is a lot of ambiguity in the workplace. This ambiguity might be in relation to how to complete a certain task, or what the overall goal of the organisation is. Disagreeable individuals can sometimes come across as cold and unforgiving, which can be demotivating for employees.

The key here is to understand the composition of your personality and how this might help or hinder your leadership style in certain situations. Being high or low on each of these traits doesn’t completely dictate your style. We all have the capacity to adapt and change our behaviour, especially when we have taken the time to understand our natural disposition.

By reflecting on your style and learning your strengths and weaknesses you will be in a strong position to adapt your approach to different situations. It’s advisable to take the same approach for all managers and leaders within the business.

Final thoughts

It’s clear that openness, neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness all affect leadership. However, nothing is ever simple and situational demands add another dimension of complexity! There’s no right or wrong personality for effective leadership and it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach.

In today’s fast-paced workplace where technology and rapid change are paramount – the most effective leaders will have to embrace this and be agile with their approach to leadership.

If you enjoyed this, please read some of my other workplace psychology blogs:

How to apply Self-Determination Theory to boost motivation

5 critical predictors of effective teamwork

 

Chris Caldwell

Account Manager for The Happiness Index – Chris has an MSc in Occupational Psychology and has extensive experience with statistics and data handling. Previously working at Great Place to Work UK as an Evaluator, he understands what it takes to run a successful engagement programme.

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