‘Learning’ to have a successful leadership persona

It’s a commonly accepted fact that having the right personality is an important factor to being a successful business leader.

Business Insider published a good summary of research on leadership personas. A lot of time, effort and money has been expended by people far brighter than me trying to identify the mystical personality traits of great leaders. 

They all seem to agree that specific personality traits are important in successful managers and leaders. But they are hard to quantify. 

Timothy A. Judge, a professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, conducted one of the most highly publicised studies into leadership personalities and concluded extroversion is the best predictor of leadership effectiveness followed closely by conscientiousness. It’s worth noting that extroversion in this context is defined as sociability and enthusiasm, while conscientiousness refers to organisation and work ethic. Other studies have found that sociability helps people inspire others, while a contrasting view emerging more recently is that introversion also has its place in great managers because these personalities are better listeners, capable of displaying more empathy.

Regardless of which personality types you think are important for successful leadership it is generally agreed that somebody’s personality is an important component of them being or becoming a highly effective leader.  However there is a school of thought that says some people are born to be great leaders, whilst others are held back by Mother Nature because they aren’t hard wired with the right personality traits. I disagree with this notion.

Although not specifically linked to business leadership, Professor Sean Hannah concluded back in 2013 based on studies of US military cadets at West Point that the brains of some of history’s great leaders have common traits, suggesting an innate wiring for leadership that some people have, and others don’t.

Obviously this study focused on some of the world’s biggest hitters, but the implications these kind of conclusions have for us normal folk striving to be managers and business leaders, always troubled me. It effectively says those people that aren’t made of the right stuff will never rise to the top of the leadership totem pole, be that team management, running a large department or leading a large business. Should we constantly think, does the person sitting next to me have the brain hard-wired for leadership, while I’ve got a load of mush!?  

The idea of being innately blessed with the personality for management or leadership also runs contrary to all of my own experiences.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a manager of large teams and the leader of some really talented groups of people. It’s something I hope to do again in the future. But for the first time in many years I’m not doing a leadership role and it’s given me time to stop and think about my own suitability for leadership, as well as how I can do it better. This issue of leadership personality is one that I find really fascinating. 

I certainly think my personality was an important factor in helping me to be a successful manager of large teams. Some of the characteristics highlighted by the various studies in leadership personas, like extroversion, openness and high dominance, were regularly cited by my closest colleagues as character traits of my own. So, I exhibited the personality coda for good leadership.

However, what I find really fascinating, and to some degree very satisfying, is these are all traits I consciously developed. None of them came naturally to me, either in the workplace or in regular life.

This makes me certain that becoming a really successful leader is a learned skill, even down to cultivating an effective leadership personality. I wasn’t born with the right personality type for effective leadership. I developed it over time with the right opportunity, environment and application.

People that I worked with in my early jobs after leaving school would have never said I was managerial material. Certainly not the type of personality to lead large teams or an entire organisation. I was the guy that was going to be found in the engine room. Stoking the boilers. Not on the bridge steering the ship.  An analogy used by my very first manager. Despite this less than ideal endorsement, business leadership was a key goal of mine.

So when an opportunity came I worked on consciously crafting the personality of the manager and leader I wanted to be. I thought about the personality traits of managers I admired and then I imitated them. I wrote out the type of manager I wanted to be and deployed this as a framework for all my managerial interactions. I analysed my management and worked hard on changing how I presented myself to my staff. And most importantly I identified managerial role models and spent a lot of time around them. It all helped me to ‘learn’ a successful leadership persona. 

Now let me be honest. I’ve made most managerial mistakes in the book. I’m not the business leader I want to be yet. I’m learning. My leadership personality will evolve over time. 

Yet I’m steadfast in my belief that effective personality traits for successful leaders can be learned. If anyone has the ambition for a leadership role but thinks or has been told they lack the ‘personality’ for it...don’t think biological cruelty has robbed you from the opportunity in the same way it robbed me of my career in professional basketball! You can learn and develop the persona to be a good leader. It takes motivation, a genuine determination to change the way you act in the workplace, a plan, discipline and the right opportunity to manage people. And of course patience. You don’t change ingrained behaviour over night. But you can learn and develop a ‘leadership personality’, while of course also remembering the importance of retaining an individual identity that will be vital for credibility as well as wellbeing.