At the top

As the country gears up for choosing the next leader for the nation, it seems a good time to think about what makes a good leader. This question, of course, is important to companies and especially boards of directors who have to choose corporate leaders. It is, however, also important for those who wish to occupy leadership positions.


Perhaps the most obvious way to think about defining the requirements of the person would be to begin with defining the requirements of the job.

The reality is that leadership positions share common requirements. Most important among these is that a leadership gets things done through people. Leaders set the stage and tone of the organization.

There are also, however, things that are unique to each leadership position. The easiest of these unique conditions has to do with technical capabilities. It would be foolhardy to ask a person with no understanding of finance in the position of chief financial officer, much in the same way it would be foolish to put someone with no understanding of military strategy in charge of a military offensive.

In the area of evaluating fit, human resource executives would normally begin with a review of at least three things: educational or professional preparation, relevant work experience and evident potential commitment.

In much easier terms, we can boil this down to what in the vernacular I think of as “Galing at Gusto,” literally “Can and Want,” or competence and preference. When hiring for any position, we wish to hire an individual who will actually get the job done because he has the ability to do the job, and wants to get the job done. Will=Can+Want


Beyond questions of knowledge and skills, however, is the question of leadership disposition. What types of behavior work best in leadership positions? Are there personality traits that are most effective in leadership positions?

One way to answer this question is to consider the key dimensions of personality, often referred to as “OCEAN” or the “big five”: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (the positive converse of which is stability). 

An early paper by Robert Kaiser concluded that there is indeed a relationship between the five key personality dimensions and leadership effectiveness in senior corporate executive roles. The relationships, however, were complex.

Kaiser found that assertiveness (a facet of extraversion) is positively related to leadership effectiveness but sociability (another facet of extraversion) is negatively related. What this means is that effective executives are comfortable speaking their mind and tend not to be sociable. This provides fresh insight into the oft-repeated phrase “It’s lonely at the top.”  Kaiser’s results indicate that, in fact, these “alone-ness” at the top is part of leadership effectiveness.

Kaiser also found that agreeableness is entirely negatively correlated to effectiveness. This seems self-explanatory. One of the things that is entirely clear to many leaders is that the comment about being lonely at the top has to do with the need to make hard decisions. The reality is that it is next to impossible to make decisions to make everyone happy. The toughest decisions, often also the most important ones, are those that impose tremendous change on organizations. These are also often the most controversial ones. If being liked is of critical importance to a leader, it feeds into his decision-making, often in a less than appropriate way.

In the area of stability, Kaiser found that vulnerability is negatively correlated with effectiveness, and a moderate level of self-acceptance is optimal. Again, this is intuitively appealing. Vulnerability leads to self-doubt and hesitance, which would militate against decisiveness. As to confidence, common sense tells us that overconfidence can be just as bad as lack of confidence.

Kaiser also found conscientiousness to have a curvilinear relationship with effectiveness with the most effective leaders being slightly above the normal adult average. Having worked in heavily analytic work environments I can personally testify to the truth of this. A certain level of conscientiousness is a requirement for getting things done. However, too much conscientiousness often turns into an inability to deal with ambiguity, leading to analysis paralysis, a need for perfect information leading to a failure to move forward.

Rough waters

More importantly, a critical component of effective leadership in current business reality is the ability to cope with change.

In a 2011 article, Justin Menkes, author of “Better under Pressure,” points out that there are no longer periods of calm seas for business leaders. Change is a constant reality. Reviewing over 200 candidates for CEO roles at major US firms. Jenkins found that three key attributes were consistent for top performing (top 25 percent) candidates, regardless of job type or industry. These same three attributes were almost totally absent in the bottom quartile of candidates. These attributes form what Jenkins calls a “highly unusual” set of traits that are “counter to natural human behavior.” They are: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose, and finding order in chaos. What all these traits have in common is that they allow a leader to continue to forge ahead while keeping track of changes. Optimism builds will to work towards the goal but realism ensures that the company is not left to the mercy of chance. A focus on purpose lifts the leader above day-to-day frustration and builds fortitude. The ability to find order in chaos allows the leader to make rational decisions even in seemingly ambiguous situations.

Leslie Pratch, author of “What looks good on Paper,” also points out that the one thing all leaders must have is the ability to “adapt to the unforeseen.” He says that the one trait to look for in an executive is the ability for “active coping.”

At this point, it should be clear that some personality traits would clearly lend themselves more naturally to a changing environment.

Matt Paese of DDI provides an even more interesting take on the subject. He says that, too often, executives manage--assigning, telling, pushing; when what they really need to do is lead--inspire, stretch, grow. His theses? Because many executives are wired that way.

And here is the crux of the matter. Effective leadership is about skills and knowledge. But it is also about behavior. And the reality is that behavior is drive, at least partially, by personality. And the key components of personality, as any good psychologist will tell you, is often set in late adolescence.

Does this mean that there are personality traits that are less effective in leadership posts? Yes. Does it make it impossible? Not necessarily. But they must be taken into account.


Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at

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