Personality In Leadership

The Relationship between Personality and Leadership – Not to make this article so much political i will use the business view on leadership

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing most businesses today is how do you identify and select great leaders? I have always found it curious how businesses invest millions in the assessment and development of talent, only to appoint a new CEO or executive team member after nothing more than a couple of interviews and a bland reference.

So what do you look for when selecting a new leader? Northouse, (2010, pp 15-109) discusses four specific approaches/models of what makes a successful leader. They are the trait approach, the skills approach, the style approach, and the situational approach.

A key question in the identification of great leaders is the relationship between personality and leadership.

The Value of Personality

Hogan & Kaiser (2005) define leadership as being about the performance of groups / teams. They argue that measuring personality is a valid predictor of leadership capability, when looked at from two perspectives, firstly how you think about yourself, and secondly, how others think about you, (Reputation).

The two aspects of reputation they identify are the bright side, or when our social performance is at its best (In interview for example), and the dark side, which reflects the impression you make when you are off guard, or at your worst. 

The behaviours or tendencies you display in the dark side tend to be concealed by well practiced social skills, but over a longer time period, for instance in a work/career scenario, the dark side will negatively impact relationships with others.
Many well practiced and refined candidates perform well in interview, using their social skills to mask their true behaviour as a leader. 

The use of a trait model, where certain personality characteristics are seen as predictors or indicators of good leadership, are able to give a below the surface profile of a potential leader, and provider sign posts to potential problems.

Hogan & Kaiser (2005) make the important connection between personality and organisational performance through the importance of leadership style (Shaped by personality) shaping employee attitudes and the effective functioning of the team, which subsequently drives, or hinders, organisational effectiveness.

Where personality is shaped in are younger years, and therefore less developable during are adult years, the skills approach focuses on the skills and knowledge required by a leader to be successful. (Northouse 2010 chapter 3)

The skills approach uses 3 skill areas, technical, human and conceptual and postulates that leadership ability is trainable. That is not to say that the skills model completely excludes the importance of personality as one of the three components of the skills model involves personal attributes which includes personality, cognitive ability and motivation. 

The style approach to leadership emphasises the importance of behaviour, which is different from the personal characteristics approach of personality based models such as the trait approach. A big question of course is can leaders behave in a way that contradicts their natural characteristics or personality? Perhaps in the short term, but on an ongoing basis?

Using a tool such as the leadership grid appears to me to oversimplify the behaviours of leadership and shows little connection between the model of style and business performance. What good is a model, if it lacks predictive capabilities? Likewise who is to say that there is a certain style of leadership most suited to a specific situation!

Situational leadership recognises that certain leaders are more successful in certain situations and espouses the need for leaders to flex and adapt their style to match the situation. Leadership style within a situational model of leadership focuses on the two spectrums of support and direction, and requires behaviour to be adapted across both. 


When you look at some of the underpinning drivers of leadership approaches such as style, situation, and skill, I would argue that personality plays an important part.

My issue with all these models, including the trait model, is that for all the research and academic debate that has gone on over the last half century, why are we still so poor at predicting leadership success?

Perhaps leadership of more of an art than a science and therefore the factors of success are less definable than we may wish for.

I have spent many years using personality measurement within the context of picking current and future leaders and would argue that the trait approach can be a useful tool in identifying who will not be successful in a leadership role. However, using an endless list of traits, based on some theoretical model of leadership, is in my experience pointless. 

Using the big five however, (Myers 2007, pp618 -620) and being clear regarding the consequences of an individual’s profile on the role you are looking to fill can be a valuable process to undertake.

For me, businesses spend too much time looking to select people into a role and not enough focus on selecting people out of a role. In other words, identify those key characteristics, such as emotional instability, low drive, and a lack of conscientiousness, that should exclude a candidate from a process, and then consider their skills, style, and ability to adapt to different situations to inform your choice.

I used to work for a privately owned business that used an external assessment company to conduct a personality, cognitive and situational leadership assessment on every managerial candidate for a leadership role. Occasionally the business would make an appointment against the advice of the assessment, and in every case 18 months down the line issues would have arisen directly in line with the concerns the assessment report suggested. The lesson for me from this was that personality, when measure along with intellect, skills, and situational capability, makes an invaluable contribution to selection decisions.

A final though on this subject is the difference between Abell’s (2006) approach to linking leadership with strategy, a forward looking approach, and the immobility of approaches such as the skills approach, which appear more focused on management tasks rather than the leadership of future success. I would argue that this gives more support to the idea of using a personality based approach, such as that proposed by Hogan & Kaiser (2005), looking for that magic ingredient of leader who can transform the organisation, and more importantly transform the hearts and minds of the workforce.


Abell, D.F. (2006) ‘The future of strategy is leadership’, Journal of Business Research 59 (3), pp. 310–314, Science Direct [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2005.09.003 (Accessed: 14th May 2010). 
Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R.B. (2005) ‘What we know about leadership’, Review of General Psychology 9 (2), pp. 169–180, PsycArticles [Online]. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.169 (Accessed: 15th May 2010).
Myers, D (2007) Psychology, 8th Edition. New York, NY. Worth Publishing
Northouse, P.G. (2010) Leadership: Theory and practice 4th ed. London: Sage.

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