Many believe that to be an effective leader you need specific personality traits.
For example, extraversion has consistently been associated with effective leadership, which is understandable since extraverts are more sociable and more assertive. Yet this doesn’t explain the effectiveness of leaders such as Barack Obama, who has been labelled as an introvert. Recent research suggests that introverted leaders, with their ‘think first, talk later’ attitude and tendency to listen, can also be highly effective. In addition, research has shown that conscientiousness serves a leader well since it brings such characteristics as orderliness, self-discipline and drive to achieve. Yet there is also a risk that, overplayed, conscientious leaders can become micromanagers.
This shows that the ‘one personality fits all’ assumption doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and it would be valuable to consider an alternative to this view.
A prominent study by Kaiser and Hogan (2011) measured the personality traits of leaders who were effective in different areas of leadership such as strategy and operations, as well as their preference for forceful or enabling leadership styles. They found that effective strategic leaders were highly open-minded and less conscientious than most. Interestingly, they found that effective operational leaders were less open-minded and highly conscientious – the exact opposite.
These findings make a lot of sense as operational and strategic leaders need to think very differently to achieve the results they require. Operational leaders need to be able to focus on achieving results in the short-term. So, having low open-mindedness and high conscientiousness suggests they are able to focus on concrete information, will not be distracted by peripheral issues and have the discipline and drive to do what they need to reach these short-term goals. Strategic leaders, on the other hand, need to focus on the long-term. So, high open-mindedness and low conscientiousness should encourage exploration and interest in previously untested ideas and more flexibility as circumstances change.
These findings suggest that individual leaders are unlikely to be well suited to all aspects of leadership. It is our contention therefore that organisations need to develop teams of leaders who have different and complementary strengths which allow them, as a team, to excel across all aspects of leadership.
Carefully constructed teams of incomplete leaders can still create complete leadership if they can work together well and learn to bring out the best in each other.