How Personality Plays Into Leadership

By Patricia Wallington
Wed, January 15, 2003

CIO — 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.

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