How Personality Plays Into Leadership

You’ve heard it said of people (maybe even of you), "What a great personality!" Other times, personality is cast in a negative light, as in "That meeting was nothing but a personality contest." So how important is personality to leadership effectiveness?

The dictionary definition of personality is the collection of emotional and behavioral traits that characterize a person. That is, your personality is how you present yourself to the world. It is how others see you. Is that important for leadership effectiveness? I think so. Your public persona is the catalyst for enrolling followers.

Some say you need to be an extrovert to be an effective leader. Introverts, on the other hand, are commonly characterized as more comfortable with ideas than with people. In my experience, either style can be successful, as each has its merits, and different situations may call on the strengths of either approach. Just be mindful of the need to emphasize the positives of your natural style and mitigate the drawbacks.

Extro! Extro!

You are sociable and unreserved, you like people, you seek out opportunities to convey your message. Everyone says you have a great personality. So your road to leadership effectiveness is unblocked, right? Not so fast. You too have challenges.

Some years ago, when I was working in the oil industry, my team was negotiating with a customer while exiting a line of business. The customer vice president was charming and gregarious with a strong personality. His 10-person team was in the room as we negotiated the terms that would allow us to end support for his installation. The team members were aware of several factors that would have been favorable to their negotiating position?but none of the staffers mentioned them to the vice president.

Not only did we gain agreement to end support, we also received liability waivers for all the existing installations. And he took us to lunch after the session! In a postmortem, my group determined that the vice president’s staff was intimidated by his presence. The environment was so centered on their boss that intervention seemed too risky. They would rather suffer more onerous terms in the settlement.

A few lessons can be learned from that example.

Don’t be deafened by applause. The challenge for the naturally extroverted is to learn to hold back when a situation calls for it. Basking in the glow of your own charm can cause you to overlook important facts.

Try to underwhelm. Your exuberance can overwhelm and intimidate. Look for clues that others have something to contribute, and be careful not to shut them out.

Let the last be first. You might need to develop the discipline to let others speak first on an issue. Listen, then decide. Talking excessively can give the appearance of arrogance.

Avoid a popularity contest. Be wary of agreeing too quickly just to be liked. Seemingly casual assurances have a way of coming back to haunt you.

For extroverts, leadership success is usually a matter of toning down the intensity. It takes only a little practice to strike the right balance and enhance your strong personality.

Inside Out

The requirements of leadership sometimes pose a bigger challenge for the introvert. The primary shortcomings for shy, reserved people are generally around communication and accessibility. A thoughtful, introspective approach can be mistaken for aloofness and might discourage people from asking questions. That’s not trivial; if you can’t effectively communicate your mission and objectives, your organization will drift directionless.

It isn’t necessary to undergo a personality transformation to be effective. You just need to find a way to bring out what’s on the inside. Identify the areas for improvement and develop strategies to strengthen your outward image.

This was my personal experience early in my career. I was very shy and usually waited for someone else to make my point. But, driven to succeed, I decided to work on my communication skills. I began speaking in public away from my office until I developed a comfortable style and confidence. My "graduation" was a dinner speech to 300 people. My nerves didn’t let me eat a bite, but I was recognized by the organization as the most inspirational speaker of the year! Today, I may still take a deep breath before stepping on stage, but I enjoy public speaking a lot.

Here are a few suggestions on improving your communication and public speaking skills from the introvert herself.

Get out of the office. The tendency to hibernate is strong, but you need to get out and mingle with your staff and with executives. Be seen; be heard.

Script it. Come up with a few talking points on subjects in which you have an interest. When those deadly silences in the middle of conversations or meetings give you a panic attack, these can be useful to fill the space and calm you down.

Reduce the risk. When you’re comfortable with communicating and ready to practice public speaking, look for low-risk opportunities. Speak at colleges, volunteer groups and professional organizations. Going beyond your company gives you a built-in safety valve. Judgment from outsiders is rarely as harsh as from those who know you.

Start small. If, like most people, you live in mortal fear of speaking to large groups, start small. Use breakfast meetings, small group sessions and even one-on-one sessions to get comfortable with communicating.

Smile. Your predisposition may affect your demeanor. Various speculative interpretations can be assigned to a frown or overly sober expression. Remember to smile. It reflects your inner confidence that you know where you are going and you want people to follow.

Remember that in some situations, your natural tendencies will be just the right prescription. The winds of change can wreak havoc on the corporate environment. Your calm style can be a soothing, reassuring influence during periods of chaos. Take care to maintain those natural strengths even while enhancing other skills.

Personality Plus

Before you celebrate your new insights, recognize that neither an extroverted nor introverted style will ensure a positive outcome, even when flawlessly executed. Many other factors contribute to success in an organization: the quality of your decisions, your vision, the timeliness of your execution, the productivity of your staff. Your personality is the lens that will reflect these attributes for all to see.

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