The Primacy of Personality

The Primacy of Personality

Skills, metrics and strategy aren’t the only substance of leadership.

Have you noticed that when a leader gets fired, we hear statements like, “It just didn’t work out,” “He wasn’t a good fit” or “She was organizationally ineffective”? These are really just metaphors for the fact that the leader couldn’t get along with their board of directors or other executives in the organization.

Why do you suppose it takes a few years to discover there is a personality chasm in the organization? Why wasn’t it apparent when he or she was hired? Why didn’t anyone realize the problem when the leader was working on strategy and reporting progress at board meetings? Why didn’t management speak up, instead of supporting the leader’s direction and leadership?

Powerful forces at work

When job candidates are vetted by the selection process according to their resume, interviews, references, background checks and psychological evaluations, the company determines whether the candidate is a good fit for the circumstances of the time. As time marches on, however, these two powerful forces cause dissonance because circumstances change and the leader’s latent personality traits start to become more apparent.

Many companies and executives tend to forget these two forces. Instead, we (myself included) often make hiring decisions based mostly on specific resume metrics such as education, previous job experience/accomplishments, and skills related to the job. Then after we hire someone we measure their performance against how well they carry out and achieve goals such as strategies, action plans, profit targets and budgets. And we really like this stuff because it all seems to fit into a tidy little box that’s easy to measure and control.

But when the wheels fly off and things go wrong, that’s when the light bulb goes on, and we realize that we didn’t put as much emphasis on the candidate’s personality as we should have. We forget that markets are in constant change and that leaders are people with personalities shaped by experiences, genetic makeup and social factors that cause them to respond in certain ways to the circumstances in which they are working.

And then the leader’s personality, which up until now has lain dormant, starts to impact the organization. Very few leaders start to make waves when newly hired, because they are implementing the plan handed to them or following the direction of the board, but over time, as changing circumstances force reactions, the personality of the leader is what causes them to react in certain ways.

The difference-maker

I’ve advised many boards of directors in hiring and evaluating leadership candidates, and most of the decision making is focused on the candidates’ experience, performance, skills, education and the like—all attributes that are, by definition, in the past; they are measurable and can be developed and changed by an individual. I’ve learned over the years (sometimes the hard way) that a brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily assure that his or her brilliance will shine in a different situation.

Too often we make the mistake of assuming that a leader’s past skills and successful experiences are portable to, and effective in, all environments and situations, without considering the unique personality of the leader and whether it’s a good fit for the organization, not only today, but in the foreseeable future as the business adapts to changes in its markets.

Enduring traits

So at this point you are probably saying to yourself, “Self, what should we be looking for in the personality of a leader that would indicate they would be good leaders today, but also chameleon enough to change with circumstances?”

Although good leaders can have a wide range of personalities, researchers have identified five specific personality traits that are common to effective leadership:

  • Intelligence. Leaders need above-average cognitive reasoning skills, the ability to understand complex ideas and social situations, and the capacity to solve complex problems.
  • Self-confidence. A leader needs to have the self-assurance to guide a company through constant change, without appearing to be too cocky. Sometimes leaders need to be bull-headed, insisting on a strategic direction, an acquisition, or a divestiture.
  • Determination. A key trait, as leaders must have perseverance and motivation to keep leading when the entire organization is in a fierce competitive battle or a rapidly changing marketplace.
  • Sociability. This can be confused with extroversion. However, I know many effective leaders who are introspective and reserved. Rather, the common trait is a personality that places high value on relationships and tends to be sensitive and humble enough to put others’ needs before their own, extroverts and introverts alike.
  • Integrity. It’s tough to be a leader without followers, and nobody wants to follow someone who does not possess integrity. Effective leaders are honest, trustworthy, dependable, and authentic, and always place the best interests of the organization and its constituencies above their own.
    Some legacy theories state that we are all born hot-wired with our personality, but more contemporary scholars have proven that the personality traits required to be an effective leader can be learned, given the right experiences, circumstances and training, regardless of the characteristics with which we were born. My experience lies somewhere in the middle, as I’ve observed leaders grow and change, but I’ve also learned that sometimes despite best efforts, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Adapting our lens

Our unique personality defines how we present ourselves to others, how we see others and how we react to change. It is the lens through which a leader views vision, strategy, decisions, teamwork, risk-taking and challenges. So if you are a leader, evaluate how your personality impacts your leadership abilities and effectiveness within your organization, not only today, but in the foreseeable future.

If you are a director or an executive preparing to hire a leader, remind yourself and your board or executive members that the primacy of personality is a strong force that can have a profound impact on an organization—one that must be reckoned with.

Mark W. Sheffert ( is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.

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