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Personality only gets you so far

A leader’s success and their future potential should not be assessed by looking at their profile on a personality test. The key factor that determines a leader’s performance and therefore dictates how successful they are is their behaviour. David Wilson, Head of Research, Glowinkowski International.

Who you are and what you do are intimately linked – the two work in concert to such a degree that it becomes difficult to see where one stops and the other begins – but they are certainly different. Behaviour and personality are not one and the same. Successful leaders behave in the ‘right’ way, regardless of whether they have the ‘right’ personality; they walk the walk and talk the talk. Theories abound about what makes a great leader. The Holy Grail has been to find the traits that equal great leadership; those characteristics of the ‘Great Man’ (research goes back to the 1800s, hence ‘man’) that underpin excellence. It’s certainly a compelling idea; wouldn’t it make the succession planner’s life so much easier? Simply find the traits that equal success and match them to a person. Job done! Look at it from the perspective of an employee as well – who wouldn’t want to work for a Great leader? The issue however comes when it’s the leaders themselves that think they’re great.

Adoring attention, seeking admiration, holding a sense of entitlement; these narcissistic tendencies are not uncommon and are just one set of a collection of three traits – a ‘Dark Triad’ – linked to destructive leadership. Along with Narcissism, the triad is made up of Machiavellianism and sub-clinical Psychopathy. Self-interested, manipulative, duplicitous and thrill seeking, these leaders were at the back of the queue when empathy was handed out. Perhaps this rings a bell – someone you know? There have certainly been some high profile leaders disgraced in recent times for the aggressive, risk taking behaviour that is so characteristic. Their (ex) employees would no doubt class them as anything other than great.

Of course, possessing negative traits is not the same as actually living them. Dark traits are not themselves the problem; it is when they become dark behaviours that the destruction happens. So what? You might argue it’s academic, who cares where the fault lies? It’s actually a really important point. You can legitimately argue that personality doesn’t really matter; people only see behaviour. The fact that they are different means personality is not a constraint; anyone can change their behaviour. Of course, it is going to be a bigger challenge for some than others, but it is still eminently achievable and highly worthwhile.

Whilst behaviours are complex, it is possible to look at them in a powerful and yet incredibly simple way. At a meaningful level, there are really only two sets of behaviours in leadership: those that are people related – where the concept of concern for people is important – and those that are task related, where leaders need to be clear and appropriately directive. The aforementioned Dark Triad leader is simply showing indifference towards people. Their development would see them thinking more about their impact on others, and acting on it. That doesn’t mean they just have to be a passive ‘nice guy’ however. They still need to show direction and purpose as well, hence the importance of the task behaviours. The key for the leader is to combine the two. That is, to be engaging in the way they set direction and purposeful in the way they relate to people. This Directive and Concerned style is illustrated in the blue top-right quadrant of the behavioural model. In addition to being strongly linked to high performance, the positive result of showing this ‘firm but fair’ style is the effect it has on how a leader is perceived. The perception of being great is put in the eyes of others, and that’s where it really counts.

From an HR director’s perspective, a behavioural agenda will stand you a great chance of getting results. Evidence based decision-making – whether that’s via validated behavioural 360 or competency based ‘event’ interviewing – is the best way to inform the talent pipeline. Whilst there is no silver bullet, through measurement and training all leaders are capable of significantly improving their behaviour – their personality stays the same – and delivering greater outcomes. To say that behaviours are the driver of great leadership is not to say that traits are unimportant; personality is an important consideration when embarking upon a development journey. The fact is though that if someone intends on becoming a better leader, they need to behave as one. Behaviour distinguishes outstanding from average and as such, behaviour should be the key focus when finding and developing leaders.

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