Born to be a leader? by Bar Schwartz

Leadership is the ability of one to influence and bring people together to achieve a collective purpose rather than their own singular interests (Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan 1994). Building on that definition, Howard & Howard (2010) suggested that a 'natural leader' is a person who exhibits the following traits:

  • Be enthusiastic and visionary about a specific goal so that people will be inspired and persuaded to achieve that same goal
  • Be competitive to encourage people to want to achieve more than they would typically achieve
  • Be dedicated and resilient to do whatever it takes, even against one's personality, to get things done (because if the leader let go of the goal, no one else would care about it)

In their book "The Owner's Manual for Personality at Work," Harward & Haward (2010) discuss the relationship between personality traits and one's fit for leadership roles. They also suggest how to resolve situations where one's personality is not a strong fit for the leadership role.

While I think the research work done by Harward & Howard is excellent for the leadership definition above, in this article, I would like to share my educated opinion of how leadership evolved in Agile environments and how all kind of personality combinations are needed and can approach leadership responsibilities differently.

 

Before we start -> My approach to personality research

Those of you who know me personalty, know that I am a personality nerd. In the last four years, I dove deep into different personality assessments, including MBTI, Enneagram, Big5, HEXICO, DISC, StrengthsFinder, and many more out there.

Scientific or not, the interpretation of those assessment highly vary. For example, the Big5, the most scientific assessment, has many assessment formats (NEO-PI-R, Big5 Factors, Peterson) and is the foundation of many other assessments such as HEXICO, and Workplace Big5 Profile. Even the most popular assessment, the MBTI based on Jung's research, highly vary. Not just in the questions but also in how people type you. As a result, depending on where you learn MBTI, the interpretation of the assessment results, the types, and the depth of it could be entirely different. Just compare the Myers & Briggs FoundationPersonality Hacker, and Objective Personality. You will see the difference.

That said, this article is not about criticizing which personality framework you should use, how or when. I am, by no means, an expert in all of the existing assessments (just a few ;) ). If this article triggers your curiosity to understand yourself and your personality better, you are more than welcome to reach out to me personally. There is a lot of information out there and not all of it is accessible to beginners. There are also many ways to misuse personality assessments.

Nevertheless, this article is not about personality assessments, it's about Leadership. Mainly, the potential of each one of us, regardless of our unique mixture of traits, experience, and abilities, to lead.

 

How personality assessment relates to all of that?

In this article, I am going to refer to the Big5 traits model because Howard & Howard (2010) also base their book on the Big5. Their research and all the research they referred to in their book is Big5 related.

Big5 is known for the following trait factors:

  1. Openness to Experience - Appetite for new. Usually manifests as originality, curiosity, creativity, and imagination. Can also relate to artistic pursuits but doesn't have to.
  2. Conscientiousness - Tendency to consolidate one's energy to achieve a specific goal. Usually manifests as orderliness, industriousness, and high level of disgust (don't like messiness).
  3. Extroversion - Level of positive emotions in association with the external world. Usually manifests as sociability, being talkative, outgoing, and enthusiasm.
  4. Agreeableness - Tendency to accommodate others. Usually manifests as warmth, politeness, compassion, and preference for cooperation.
  5. Neuroticism - Sensitivity to negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Usually manifests as low emotional stability, being worried or anxious, slow recovery after feeling negative emotions, withdrawal, and even depression.

If you are not familiar with the Big5 factors personality model, check out Peterson video about it. While there are many resources out there that explain the Big5 very well (including Howard & Howard book), I still recommend Peterson as he contributed a lot of scientific research on this topic. Not to mention, he is a clinical psychologist, and his lectures are openly available on youtube if you wish to educate yourself further on this topic. That said, only basic understanding is needed here.

 

Traditionally, to be a leader, you needed to have followers

When Howard & Howard (2010) described the 'natural leader' personality, they referred to the following personality traits: enthusiastic, visionary, competitive, dedicated, and resilient. Meaning, if we directly translate it to the Big5, the person is highly extroverted, highly open to new experiences, low on agreeableness, highly conscientiousness, and low on neuroticism.

Given those traits, this person is going to be highly inspiring. They would continuously think about the future and communicate it with high enthusiasm. They would be very engaged in social activities which are critical when one's role is to bring people together and to follow them. On the other hand, that person would appear to be less caring about people and very results-oriented as they naturally like to argue (low agreeableness) and don't feel as much stress or negative emotions (low neuroticism). Good or bad? Hard to say.

When we think about an inspiring leader, people usually mention Steve Jobs. He was, by no means, an amazing individual who brought people together to realize Apple vision. Yes, he did challenge the status quo. However, people who know Steve Jobs would argue how great he was with people, delegating work and ensuring the future of Apple as an organization, also now that he's sadly gone. Would you say Apple is still as strong as it was? I am not sure.

Leaders in organizations are responsible to realize the product vision but it is only one part of the equation. To build great companies, we also need to attract and retain great people. Hence, depending on one's leadership role, different aspects of leadership would have a priority. For example, when one is the CEO of a tech company, they must be very competitive and watch out for their market. They should aspire to be the best in what they do, regardless if we talk about providing better quality, service, experience or even disrupt the whole market. Same time, they should also not be married to their idea of what is best and not get discouraged with every failure. Adaptability and openness are core traits in rapidly changing industries. However, if one is the HR manager, we might expect a different personality. Ultimately, people are people. We do not move as fast as the industry or the market. Many people seek stability, safety, and meaning at work. Thus, I wouldn't be surprised if an HR manager would be more agreeable than their CEO. Also, I would argue that they are leaders. For example, they lead people across the organization to realize the desired company culture.

 

Facets of Agile Leadership

When we talk about Agile, we usually refer to the ability to iterate fast on a plan given the feedback and new information we discover along the way as we progress with the plan. Many people use Lean & Agile as synonyms, but it isn't. Lean aspire to have minimum waste - don't work on things that don't matter, while agile aspire to respond to change faster - don't get stuck following an obsolete plan. It can be implemented in tandem but one doesn't require the other to succeed.

I stress this point as leaders in Lean organizations could have different leadership models that would work. Agile is the most effective when the problems we solve are very complex and we don't have enough information to solve it now. Thus, we have to learn as we go and iterate. We have to integrate customer feedback to learn more. Lean can also be used to optimize operations. E.g. Kanban by Toyota.

Organizations and teams would adopt different Agile & Lean methods given their context in the same way as a researcher would choose which research methods to utilize in their academic paper. Hence, most organizations are not going to follow one framework. However, if they want to be Agile, they would aspire to follow the principles -

  • Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools.
  • Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation.
  • Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation.
  • Responding to Change Over Following a Plan.

While one is not a replacement of the other, one is the foundation for the other. This is why those are principles.

 

Where am I going with all of this? A new definition of Leadership

Defining what describes leadership in your organization highly depends on how Agile or Lean or both you inspire to be as an organization. The definition above by Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan would remain relevant for traditional structures where the role of the leader is to take charge, set the course and get things done. However, in an Agile environment, I would suggest the following:

Leadership is the ability of one to bring people together and facilitate the delivery of value to a real customer in a versatile context while utilizing one's individual interests.

Meaning, an Agile leader would:

  • Be collaborative and cooperative to support the diversity of perspectives in problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Be a facilitator as they acknowledge they don't have all the answers AND that is how it should be (no one is an expert in everything).
  • Strive to deliver value to a real customer. Hence, be curious and knowledgeable in what is valuable to that customer.
  • Be adaptive to a versatile, continuously and rapidly changing environment. E.g., market, technology, and customers needs.
  • Be knowledgeable and understanding of people uniqueness. Understand what each person brings to the team, how to build rapport and trust with them, and how to maximize their potential (because, again, no one is an expert in everything).

I am aware that the above is my interpretation. I based it on over a decade working in the software industry, seeing teams fail and succeed, and supporting Agile transformations - as a team member, coach, or the leader. I also base it on many books, podcasts, articles, research papers, and expert opinions which I consumed over the years. Of course, the list is not comprehensive. It's a baseline. Also, this is not scientific research which I might consider doing one day. Nevertheless, one would need to add to these abilities and skills that every leader would need to develop regardless of their environment and context, e.g., communicating with clarity and delegating effectively.

 

What is different about my definition?

Considering I am speaking about responsibilities, I believe that different personalities can still get there in different ways. For example:

  • Bring people together - there are many ways to bring people together. One can do that via being highly sociable (extroversion) or highly cooperative (agreeable). When the goal is to accommodate the diversity of opinions in problem-solving and decision making, one could also achieve that by being curious (open), and even methodological (conscientiousness) if the expected behavior in the organization is to ensure everyone is being included and heard.
  • Facilitate delivery - here, the focus is on facilitating a process that leads to a tangible outcome. One can achieve that by either caring about the process (conscientiousness), the people (agreeable), or the product (openness). Meaning, I can care about how things are done, how to accommodate the people in the process, and realizing a vision of a product or service.
  • Customer centricity - here, the focus can be on the customer experience as a conscientious goal, or on the knowledge and problem-solving process of what would create a uniquely valuable customer experience (openness). We could also come from the direction of being not-open or being very neurotic and care about our customers' safety and stability. Surprisingly, all those aspects are similarly important.
  • People centricity - the need to accommodate people, is highly associated with agreeableness. However, everyone can care or not care about people. Even agreeable people could care less about people. Hence, we could achieve that by worrying about people, their wellbeing and safety (neuroticism), we could be curious about people optimization (openness), we could see them as part of a system and problem-solve how to integrate them better (conscientiousness), and we could just like being around them (extroversion).
  • Adaptive in context - this is the key driver for agility. If things didn't change, we wouldn't have to change. Some people are adaptable by nature (low conscientiousness), others are adaptive by motivation. If adaptability was only a personality trait, we would have to deeply rethink the future of our workplaces. Luckily, adaptability by motivation looks very different than low conscientiousness. Highly conscientious people want to get things done so they would adapt to things that simplify life for them, agreeable people want to accommodate other's needs so they will adapt when everyone else is onboard, open people want to experience more new so they will usually be the first in line to change, etc.

Hence, the vital question one should ask before taking a leadership role is whether you want to lead or not. It is true that certain traits would likely gravitate towards wanting to lead people, take charge, and fulfill all of the above. However, each personality combination can fulfill a leadership role in a unique way. For example, Agile Coaches often take the role of leading transformations. In practice, there are many types of coaches. The agreeable ones would be the ones who build strong cooperative teams. The non-agreeable ones would be the ones who reason with people best to move beyond their current mindset. Both are important.

Back to the question - do you want to lead? I am a true believer in 'Where there's a will there's a way.'

Before you go, there is another important question I want to address - Does it mean everyone can do everything? Shortly it depends. Yes, we can all learn to lead, facilitate, delegate, communicate, coach others, and so on. However, given our personality, we might not want to or really really struggle to. Agreeable people tend to like the back seat and lead people without taking the credit or standing in the spotlight. Does it mean they are not leaders? Does it mean they don't want to lead? Those are tricky questions with no clear answer from my side. Thus, I fall to my belief -> a lot of who we are is fluid and can change. Not everything, but a lot. I am always going to be the agreeable, highly neurotic person I am and it gives me some advantage in training, facilitating and coaching others. I could learn to be more resilient in highly competitive environments but I don't have to.

To summarize this article, I want to emphasis that even if we expect a specific type of a person to lead in a very specific type of way, leadership will always come in different shades of gray. Different leadership roles in different environments require different personalities. It is crucial to understand how one's unique personality combination could drive them to become the best leaders they could be. The is no ideal leader machine when people get in and come out as the visionary leader. For me, that changed the way I think about building new leaders, elevating existing ones, and measuring their performance. What changed for you?

 

If you are facing the challenge above and you are curious how to elevate yourself as a leader, let me know :) Also check out Lead2Coach.com.

 

Hogan, R., Curphy, G. J., & Hogan, J. (1994). What we know about leadership: Effectiveness and personality. American Psychologist, 49(6), 493-504.

Howard, P., & Howard, J. (2010). The owner's manual for personality at work (2nd ed.). Charlotte, NC: The Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (CentACS).

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Bar Schwartz is the Head of Engineering Excellence at Signavio and an executive coach and founder of Lead2Coach.

With over a decade's experience in delivering software products in continuously changing environments, Bar challenges leaders to focus on the human side of every transformation.