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Leadership Personality: Do You Have the Right
Big Five Traits?
“Personalities at work are like cars in the city: They often
can keep us from our destination.” Pierce J. Howard, The
Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work, 2001.
How well do you understand basic personality differences among
the people at work? Knowledge of personality structure, dynamics
and development is helpful to your:
1. Personal professional development
2. Relationships with associates
3. Relationships with superiors and the organization in general
line is performance. Whether
you are working in a team, leading a department, or selling a
service or product, the way you communicate and persuade is critical
to your personal success and your company’s
If you aspire to climb the leadership ladder, you will need to
learn the basics of personality. Without studying for a PhD in
psychology, you can gain a firm understanding of your own personality
and those with whom you work.
Psychologists now believe that of all the various methods for
classifying personality dimensions, only one stands out as the
most statistically robust: the Big Five. This means personality
factors can be differentiated and distilled into five separate
N = Need for stability, negative emotionality, neuroticism
E = Extraversion, positive emotionality, sociability
O = Originality, openness, imagination
A = Agreeableness, accommodation, adaptability
C = Consolidation, conscientiousness, will to achieve, goal-oriented
The Big Five Personality Factors
The Big Five, or Five-Factor Model, has been around since 1936.
With computers and factor analysis software, research in the 1980s
has consistently confirmed that these five personality factors
are the most reliable for differentiating personality traits.
The Big Five synonym clusters appear to account for most differences
among individual personalities, describing five universal dimensions.
We score a high, low or mid-range rating in each dimension:
refers to one’s need
for stability or negative emotionality. A person high in N
is very reactive and prefers a stress-free workplace. A person
low in N is very calm and relatively unaffected by stress that
usually burdens others.
to one’s “extraversion.” A person
high in E likes to be in the thick of the action, while a person
low in E prefers to be away from noise and stimulation.
refers to one’s originality
or openness to new experiences. A person high in O has an appetite
for new ideas and activities, and is easily bored. Those low
in the O factor prefer familiar territory and tend to be more
refers to one’s accommodation
ability or agreeableness. A person high in A tends to accommodate
the wishes and needs of others, while a person low in A tends
to cater to his or her own personal priorities.
refers to one’s consolidation
or conscientiousness. A person high in C tends to consolidate
energy when accomplishing one or more goals. A person low in
C prefers multitasking and a more spontaneous work style.
These definitions come from Pierce
J. Howard, PhD, and Jane Mitchell Howard, MBA, as outlined in
their book, The Owner’s Manual
for Personality at Work (Bard Press, 2001). While others have written
about the Big Five Factors, this book summarizes how they manifest
in the work environment.
Is the Big Five personality assessment valid? Researchers have
pointed to reliability studies that are consistent enough to approach
the status of law. In the business world, this model provides a
reliable, standard vocabulary with which to discuss personality
The most highly regarded standard test
for measuring the Big Five is Costa and McCrae’s NEO PI-R,
also called the NEO. In the fall of 2000, the Howards introduced
the WorkPlace Big Five ProFile (WB5P), which features questions
and reports that incorporate workplace language.
A Word of Caution About Assessments
Human personality is complex, and we have yet to unlock its mysteries.
The Big Five model gives us a uniform language based on standard
definitions, but please note that no single profile represents
Many forces shape an individual. The Five Factors form the main
infrastructure. More than two dozen different traits are subsumed
under them, providing trillions of combinations. Human individuality
is too complex for any one system to explain adequately.
The N Dimension and Stress
score estimates the point at which your flight-or-fight response
is triggered. This period of arousal is eventually counterbalanced
by parasympathetic arousal, or a return to normalcy and calmness
with higher N scores have a shorter “trigger” and
can’t take much stress before feeling it. Those with
lower scores have a longer fuse and can take abundant amounts
of stress before showing the signs.
N-/Low N Score: If you are
particularly resilient, you tend to respond to stressful situations
in a calm, secure and rational way. Typically, you are stress-free,
guilt-free and urge-resistant. Unless you are very attentive,
you may appear to others to be too laid back and relaxed. Others
may even perceive you to be uncaring, lethargic, insensitive
or unaware of problems. You may need to take others’ concerns
more seriously if you want to nurture good working relationships.
N=/Mid-Level N Score: You are responsive and tend to be calm,
secure and steady under normal circumstances. You have a moderate
threshold for handling workplace stress.
N+/High N Score: You are reactive
and tend to respond to most situations in an alert, sensitive,
concerned, attentive, excitable or expressive way. Under stress,
you may appear anxious, tense, restless, depressed, easily
discouraged, temperamental or worried. In tough times, you
need time to vent your frustrations or alleviate your concerns
before you’re ready to tackle
the next job challenge. You may fill the role of conscience
or emotional barometer for your team or organization.
The E Factor: Sociability
This factor describes comfort levels with external stimuli.
If you’re an introvert,
you prefer working alone. Typically, you are a serious, quiet,
private person who may opt to write or email instead of talking
to others. Others may consider you a loner.
||Ambivert/E=: If you
fall in the mid-range on the E scale, you tend to move easily
from working with others to working alone. You have a moderate
threshold for sensory stimulation and may tire of it after
||Extravert/E+: You prefer
to be around other people and are talkative, enthusiastic,
sociable and fun-loving. You often become the formal or informal
leader. You may not be a good listener because you tend to
dominate the conversation.
Recognizing your natural tendency to be surrounded by people,
noise and activity will help guide you in making career choices.
The O Factor: Curiosity
This factor reflects your openness
or originality—your level
of curiosity versus comfort with familiar territory.
If you are in the low range for this personality factor, you
are practical and down to earth. You approach work with efficiency
and are comfortable with repetitive activities. Others may
view you as conservative, narrow in your thinking, set in your
ways or even rigid.
You tend to be somewhat down
to earth, but you’ll consider
a new way of doing something if convinced. You aren’t
known for your creativity or curiosity, but you appreciate
innovation and efficiency.
You tend to have many broad interests and like to be cutting-edge.
You are often curious, introspective and reflective, seeking
new experiences and thinking about the future. You may be easily
bored. Others may view you as impractical or unrealistic.
The A Factor: Negotiation
Your A factor is an estimate of the point at which you tire of
being defiant and turn to acts of submission. Biologically, it
is based in the dominance challenge system of our brains.
You relate to authority by being skeptical, tough, guarded,
persistent and competitive. You may come across as hostile,
rude, self-centered or combative.
You can shift between competitive and cooperative situations
and usually push for a win-win strategy.
You tend to relate to authority
by being tolerant, humble and accepting. You may come across
as naïve, submissive, conflict-averse
and even unprincipled because you will yield your position.
The C Factor: Focus
This personality dimension describes your capacity to focus attention
on sustained, repetitive, goal-focused behavior.
You tend to approach goals in a relaxed, spontaneous, open-ended
way. Your mind can switch tracks on the run. You may be a procrastinator
or viewed as casual about responsibilities or unorganized.
You tend to keep work demands and personal needs in balance.
You can switch from focused activities to spontaneous diversions.
You work toward goals in a disciplined, dependable fashion.
You proceed in a linear, sequential manner, with a strong will
to achieve. You typically consolidate your time, energy and
resources in pursuit of your goals.
Understanding the Nature of Great Leaders
Machiavelli, in The Prince, argued that the best leader needs
to do whatever it takes to get the job done. If toughness is required,
or if a situation calls for tenderness, successful leaders will
adapt to succeed. Mihalyi Csikszentimihalyi, author of Flow: The
Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1996, found that creative geniuses
share one tendency: They do what it takes to get the job done,
even if it requires a behavior that is less than appealing.
Portrait of a “Natural Leader”
There has been substantial research
over the last two decades on the Big Five profile of an ideal
leader. This does not mean people
who fail to fit this profile are unable to lead; rather, the
Big Five profiles the typical leader’s personality, based
on organizational studies. These personality traits move along
a continuum, and one can exercise non-preferential behaviors when
The natural leader defined in Big Five terms is resilient (N-);
energetic, outgoing and persuasive (E+); visionary (O+); competitive
(A-); and dedicated to a goal (C+).
“Leadership involves persuading other people to set aside
for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a
common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare
of a group.” (Hogan, Curphy and Hogan, 1994, “What
we know about leadership: Effectiveness and personality.” American
Psychologist. 49(6), 493-504.)
Leaders who are generally calm (N-) must occasionally show agitation
and strong emotions (N+). They may be generally outgoing and assertive
(E+), and occasionally retire in solitude (E-). They may espouse
a vision (O+) and also be practical and efficient (O-). They can
be unyielding (A-), but also nurturing on occasion (A+). And although
they must focus on goals (C+), they must occasionally be spontaneous
(C-) and playful.
The Big Trade-Offs
It is impossible to have some traits simultaneously. The drive
to lead and achieve (A-) runs contrary to interpersonal sensitivity
(A+). If you want a leader with a strong drive, you must typically
sacrifice some interpersonal sensitivity. If you want a leader
with strong interpersonal sensitivity, you must sacrifice some
amount of drive.
Carefully identifying the needs of a specific role prior to selecting
or appointing a leader will help determine any necessary trade-offs.
If you want to learn more about where you score on the Big Five
personality factors, there are a few commercial online assessment
sites. But simply knowing where you stand, without factoring in
the context of your work environment, provides an incomplete assessment.
A coach or consultant can help you apply this information for personal
development and career advancement.
Resources is a Leadership Consulting, Training and Executive Coaching
Firm Helping Companies Assess, Select, Coach and Retain Emotionally
Intelligent People; Emotional Intelligence-Based Interviewing and
Selection; Multi-Rater 360-Degree Feedback; Career Coaching; Change
Management; Corporate Culture Surveys and Executive Coaching.
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach
Trusted Advisor to Senior Leadership Teams
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