Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership

The Link Between Leadership and Personality

Organizations are shaped not only by products and marketing but also by the characteristics and traits of their leaders.

Organizational psychologist Ron Warren in his new book, Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership, discusses the impact of a leader’s personality on an organization. He created the LMAP 360 to help leaders have a perspective of their impact.

I recently spoke with him about his research.



You’ve been researching personality and leadership for decades. What are some of the more surprising conclusions you’ve reached?

Surprisingly, that the same traits that drive individual and team performance and those that derail effectiveness haven’t changed in the last 50 years. While almost everything associated with the world of work now evolves very quickly as technology transforms every 18 months per Moore’s Law, humans are quite similar to Stone Age humans.

There are four key domains of personality in play: Grit: the Task Mastery Traits, EQ: the Teamwork Traits, Dominance, and Deference. Broad research identifies behaviors associated with Grit and EQ as key drivers for leadership, teamwork and communications. Fortune Magazine editor Geoff Colvin calls them “high-value skills.” Broad research also identifies behaviors associated with Dominance and Deference traits that derail leadership, teamwork, and communications. Others refer to these derailers by different names like over-aggression, difficulty managing emotions, failure to build teams, excessive caution, but they are rooted in basic dominance and deference behaviors.

Interestingly, Grit and EQ appeared latest in human evolution – called phylogeny – and also appear latest in individual development – called ontogeny. And a basic law of human development is ontogeny follows phylogeny. Neuroscience shows that for many people, the full maturation of the frontal cortex goes on into the mid-twenties … and for many people, this might be required for their full maturation and thus ability to access Grit and EQ. In contrast, Dominance and Deference behaviors are almost inborn and evident in toddlers – and in other animals. Some people develop Grit and EQ, but many do not.

One lesson for emerging professionals is to be aware of a need to think before they act to summon and leverage Grit and/or EQ – which may not be abundant naturally. One way is to suppress Dominance and/or Deference habits and behaviors if they are prominent, as they actively interfere with Grit and EQ. Grit requires planning and thinking about projects and work; EQ requires attending to and considering people and relationships.



How Personality Impacts Leadership

Share an example of a personality trait and how it impacts leadership.

Sure. Consider someone very high on Need to Control, a Dominance trait. They are domineering and bossy, opinionated and like to advocate ideas rather than listen or seek collective intelligence; they get impatient and are vulnerable to the confirmation bias; they may act before thinking it out. Not too surprisingly, Need to Control is negatively associated with leadership, teamwork and communications … Now, Skip, of course personality traits do not operate in isolation, so what also matters are the other traits in a Profile with Need to Control!

The LMAP assessment is a Circumplex model where traits are organized on a circular chart that represents how they interact with and are influenced by the presence or absence of other traits. I’ve been building systems like this since 1984 – how weird is that!  Anyway, in my book and in our assessments, the focus is on overall Personality Profile – combinations of 13 personality traits – rather than one trait.

So consider High Control and:

  • Add high Rigidity, Hostility, Competitiveness (Dominance traits) and I can guarantee there will be problems and it will be unpleasant.
  • Or add in Achievement Drive and/or Conscientiousness and/or Innovation – better yet, all three Grit traits – and you get a high performer, great at cranking results but not to lead and positively motivate a team – without at least average EQ.
  • Finally, take away Hostility and add in even-average Helpfulness or Sociability and it looks like the Profile of a super effective Managing Editor of a major newspaper I assessed, an introvert with high Control, Conscientiousness, Achievement Drive, Innovation and about-average Helpfulness: a great editor and leader in a tough business and a journalist coach and mentor for his direct reports.

For this fellow, the prominent Dominance wasn’t a derailer because he had just enough EQ traits to temper it… And managing editors of major newspapers must have strong opinions.  But take away his average EQ and mentoring style and then his dominance would go unchallenged and impair his leadership effectiveness.  I like how Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania Professor and Macarthur Genius Grant winner, says in her book Grit: “As a psychologist, I can confirm that grit is far from the only—or even the most important—aspect of a person’s character . . . There are many other things a person needs to grow and flourish. Character is plural.”

Robert Hogan also talks about this in calling for a “nuanced view – namely that there are strengths and weaknesses associated with the various derailment factors … every competent manager I have ever met has some elevation on dimensions … bold, mischievous, colorful and imaginative; this seems to be where their energy, resilience and ideas come from. Ultimately in human affairs, it comes down to saphrosyne, to balance, and to proportionality. Good things taken to the extreme turn into bad things.” As Hogan describes it correctly, a leader with bold, mischievous, colorful and imaginative traits can be new, different, exciting, and have a wonderfully innovative mix of leadership traits – think Steve Jobs  – or totally out of control  – think Steve Jobs  – … depending on the dynamic interplay with other personality traits and numerous situational variables. Personality is complex.


Positive Leadership Orientation

What are the elements of a positive leadership orientation?

Positive is great word given our conversation. The Grit / Task Mastery Traits that drive results-orientation and intellectual engagement and EQ/ Teamwork Traits that drive empathy, collaboration and team engagement are all positive traits and

  • Are associated more with optimism than pessimism and open vs. closed minded
  • Use more positive than negative language and positioning
  • Feel more engaged and positive
  • Are rated more effective as leaders

In contrast, the Deference and Dominance Derailer Traits are associated with negativity and pessimism. These folks tend to focus on problems more than solutions, tend to be more rigid and closed minded versus having an open mindset – to borrow from Carol Dweck’s model –low collaboration skills and.

  • Use more negative or avoidant language and positioning
  • Feel disengaged and de-motivated – and appear so to others
  • Are rated as ineffective leaders


How do the four dimensions of behavior influence an individual or a team in terms of working together more effectively?  

All the four domains contribute to teamwork and team process – either positively or negatively. That old Tolstoy quote says it really well:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”With Grit and EQ increasing the odds of a happy team and dominance and deference increasing the odds of an unhappy team … We know from research that elevated Grit and EQ facilitate team process and results and are really critical for communications. And in a sense, communications – the exchange of words/ language – is mainly what we share with each other… moreover, we also know that deference detracts from teamwork because of low assertiveness and conflict avoidance, and Dominance detracts from teamwork because of low empathy, over-aggressiveness and poor social skills. And without Grit, the team would not have interesting work or get much done.


Common Interpersonal Errors

Based on your observation of thousands of leaders, what are some of the most common interpersonal mistakes that leaders make?

A really key and common derailer is a mindset that because you are smart, educated and/or experienced with great technical skills, your self-management and interpersonal behaviors don’t matter much. Organizations tend to hire for skills and fire for behavior. Even Steve Jobs got fired from the company he started because his behavior was intolerable.

For Domineering leaders, the key issues are around not listening, blame, not facilitating discussions to leverage collective intelligence, lack of respect and consideration towards others, arrogance, and condescension.

For Deferent leaders, the killer behaviors are not speaking up, avoiding conflicts that require constructive discussion, and maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, think about this killer combo: domineering leaders being vulnerable to the confirmation bias and focuses on persuading others, being right. The deferent leaders find the domineering ones so convincing and intimidating that they don’t raise important questions. Big problem.

Skip, let’s not forget that these same normal personality traits that operate as derailers, when expressed in an extreme, exaggerated manner form the foundation for character disorders – seen in leaders like any population. Also psychiatric disorders – primarily anxiety, depression and bipolar disorders – are seen in leaders like any population. These too are dysfunctional behaviors that leaders need to manage.

The boundary between clinical and OD used to be marked with a third rail – not to be touched, but I like to explore the links between domains, so I wrote a chapter in my book on this very topic.


What’s the LMAP 360?

LMAP 360 is a personality assessment that uses 360 feedback methods and, because of how we built it, is pretty distinctive from any other assessment.

First, most 360 assessments measure distinct competencies, job skills. Usually there is no integration of the competencies. In contrast, LMAP measures a coherent, integrated set of personality traits empirically tied to leadership effectiveness. So rather than a ton of data on distinct competencies, we focus on the gestalt of the Personality – who shows up, what is your presence like, your behavioral reputation.

Second, LMAP 360 is an empirical model with strong reliability and validity, drawing from a sample of 20,000 plus leaders and over 300,000 plus raters. LMAP measures 13 personality traits, six that drive high performance and seven that derail effectiveness. Moreover, these patterns hold true across industry, gender, culture and generations! Sort of mind-blowing but consistent with NEO research showing universal personality characteristics.

Third, Skip, I am sure you know that most personality assessments are self-ratings, with some serious biases and generally pretty weak associations to job performance. So LMAP uses 360 methods – collecting a self-assessment and feedback ratings from an average of about 15 coworkers, colleagues, customers. These resulting feedback ratings have very strong associations to job performance.

Finally, most 360s provide pages and pages of bar charts and numbers. That is “the feedback,” and it does not tend to move and motivate people in their head and their heart.  People think in words, narratives and stories – we use language to muse about complicated matters, especially around emotionally loaded, interpersonal dynamics – not numbers and bar charts. So LMAP reports are written as plain-English narratives that emulate a coaching conversation. The narrative is intelligent, references relevant research, and is not an I’m Ok, You’re Ok rap. They are highly individualized reports that help leaders think about and better understand the impact of their behavior on process and outcomes. This report language also helps teams and cohorts to develop a common language to talk about behavior, effectiveness, and accountability.


If someone takes this assessment, should they try to change or just increase their awareness of strengths and weaknesses?

Awareness that leads to action – actions reflected in externalized behaviors – is what we target in this work. Action means taking one behavior off autopilot, and meticulously managing just that one behavior to be a more effective professional.

And, we work with some professions where this is vital: in healthcare, energy services, aviation … where breakdowns in leadership, teamwork and communications can have catastrophic outcomes.

The good news is that for many leaders, it means employing skills they already have but don’t use enough. It’s like this one LMAP feedback rater commented, “I would like to see more of her best moments…too often compromised by . . . x, y or z.” This rings so true and is the central focus of our assessments and the book: to raise the challenge of how can you be your best self more often and consciously avoid slipping into behaviors that are not you at your best?

Skip, you also asked if there is almost a best practice with regards to changing a weakness or leveraging a strength. It depends 100% on that leader. About 10% – 15% of leaders we see are great natural leaders, with no behavioral issues. We have them focus on time management, career and life goals or leveraging strengths to be more of a force multiplier.  For another 10%, these are great leaders AND have a few counterproductive behaviors – that usually stand out clearly in 360. These leaders see that based on their feedback, the character they are is not the character they want to be … and they are incredibly motivated to work to raise their game, even though they are already “successful.”

This leaves about 75% of us who have either prominent domineering or deferring styles; in other words, normals.  We see many smart, educated, well-intended dominating leaders with huge upside in building even-average social and emotional intelligence. We also see smart, educated, well-intended, deferential leaders with upside in building even-average assertiveness, constructive confrontation, grit and team management.

And almost any mix of personality traits you can dream up!

We also ask dominating and deferring leaders to consider if they’ve consciously chosen to be a leader … or if like so many leaders, they are default leaders: great individual contributors seduced into a management or a leadership role without thinking it through.  And of course, organizations collude in this process. Professionals would do well to remember, it is fine to be an individual contributor or manager and leader, but consciously opt in or opt out; don’t default into the role. Management and leadership is not for everyone. Steve Wozniak consciously opted out: requiring he not be in a formal management or leadership role before agreeing to work at Apple (vs. staying at HP). Woz wanted to be an engineer not a leader.



How changeable are we?

Many 20th century psychologists believed personality was “hard wired” and unchangeable. Many lay people have this perspective and maintain it at their peril because the belief provides a ready excuse for not managing one’s externalized behavior. It is nice to reframe that personality is behavior – which immediately allows for broader interventions and change strategies. So, even if you can’t stop the internal urge to interrupt, you can certainly stop the behavior of interrupting. People are incredibly flexible and changeable and can learn, including around managing their behavioral habits.  So while thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods and behavior are always in play and interacting, even if you never master the urge and lose your impatience to interrupt, you can control the behavior of actually interrupting.

I describe modifying these kinds of behaviors to picking low hanging fruit. And you find if you even slightly modify key behaviors with others, the climate and interactions begin to shift.

Finally, I promise, the last words, it is far easier to progress from a skill deficit to average than in moving from average to mastering a skill. Advocates of strengths-based training discount the value of improving a behavioral weakness, arguing that, at best, improvement in areas of deficit leads to average, not outstanding performance in that particular behavior. Great. Behaviors interact, and replacing deficits with even average behavioral skills brings huge synergistic upsides. Spend an hour around a high-Grit–high-Dominance leader who demonstrates no encouragement, helpfulness, or interpersonal engagement. Compare that experience with an hour spent with a high-Grit–high-Dominance leader with about-average interpersonal and listening skills, and you’ll see and feel the experiences are very different.

The goal is not to try to convert deficits to strengths or skill mastery; it is to develop “good enough” behavioral skills so the leader or professional can effectively execute on their role and responsibilities.  A final example is with a commercial airline pilot, “Edwin,” who was unassertive and deferential. Edwin understood the assessment and feedback exercises were not intended to remake his personality but to provide him with the communication tools he needed to fulfill his professional duties. The goal was to help Edwin develop communication skills that were “good enough” – so that they would no longer be problematic in his role as a commercial airline pilot.


For more information, Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership.



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