As you think about the managers and bosses you’ve had over the years, you might mentally sort them into categories of “good” and “bad,” placing them on a spectrum of ability. Some leaders rise to the top and an even smaller subset standout as being exceptional – the type of manager or leader that affected our lives for the better. Some leaders sink to the bottom, with one or two who may have been so poor at their jobs that the thought of them years later still brings feelings of anxiety and dread. While there are probably actions of these leaders that help you mentally sort them, the trait approach to leadership may give you some further insight.
The trait approach looks at characteristics that proven leaders have that can then be used to predict who might be a successful and effective leader (Northouse, 2016). There are many studies over the years that present a large number of traits associated with successful leadership, with varying degrees of emphasis and interaction between these traits (Northouse, 2016).
Think of a leader who you appreciated and was exceptional and think of what impression this leader left with you. For me, it was a manager I will call Jenny. Jenny took a chance on me to help me change careers. She was the type of boss who I could always depend on. When I needed her help, she was there. When I needed her input to move a project forward, she always made sure I had it. She supported me as I adjusted to a new career path and always made time to talk one-on-one on a personal level. Once, we were involved in a high-profile event that she asked me to help with. During the presentation – in front of senior leadership – the presentation stopped working. While I didn’t know audio-visual equipment, I tried to help the multimedia staff fix the problem and was promptly blamed for the issue by senior leadership. Jenny remained cool and calm through the ordeal and then shielded me from further embarrassment and reprimand, sticking up for me. In addition, she was very outgoing and decisive. She made decisions quickly and stood by them and never backed down from advocating for what she thought was right, despite often being outnumbered.
What made Jenny a good leader? Jenny had four of the five personality dimensions that make a good leader, called the Five Factor Model of Personality (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). In particular, she showed aptitude in conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion. She was conscientious by following through with help and input. She was agreeable by being empathetic to my needs as a person and making time to talk personally. Neuroticism means emotional stability (Pennsylvania State University, 2018) and she showed it through the example of the presentation disaster by remaining calm and then working through the difficult follow up in a way that protected me. She showed extraversion by having an effect on the office through her decision-making and fighting for what she thought was right, exhibiting self-confidence. These four traits combined to make a strong leader that had a strong positive effect. There is a fifth dimension as well: openness to experience. This dimension means being broad-minded and curious and seeking out new experiences (Pennsylvania State University, 2018.)
How did your leader’s actions align with these traits? While we are born with certain traits, a good leader can evaluate how he or she fits into the Five Factor Model and will then modify their behaviors to address weaknesses (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). A good leader has self-awareness.
Now think of the worst leader you’ve known. Just as the Five Factor Models gives a roadmap towards successful leadership, the six Dark-Side Personality Traits are a good indicator of poor leadership ability. These six traits are: being argumentative, having interpersonal insensitivity, narcissism, fear of failure, perfectionism and impulsivity (Pennsylvania State University, 2018).
In my experience, I had a manager I’ll call Jonathan. Jonathan was the type of manager who caused me to expend a lot of energy and effort to deal with and had a habit of sewing discord in the office. Based on the six Dark-side Personality Traits, Jonathan was argumentative because he was always very sensitive when criticized and was suspicious of others and their intentions (Pennsylvania State University, 2018), especially with peers. He was interpersonally insensitive because he wasn’t aware of how he came across to others and couldn’t put himself in other people’s shoes (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). One could say he was tone-deaf and oblivious to what those around him were dealing with. He was also very self-centered to the point he overestimated his own abilities, often giving direction that didn’t make sense or was overly optimistic. Jonathan had a fear of failure too, to the point of being paralyzed of making big decisions, which affected the office efficiency and effectiveness greatly. Often, decisions were made to just keep things as they were instead of implementing a new process (Pennsylvania State University, 2018) that could have addressed a failure in the system. There was also perfectionism, with Jonathan so focused on every minor detail that projects quickly languished and missed due dates by months. Priorities were rarely set and maintained (Pennsylvania State University, 2018), and even if they were, often weren’t kept. Jonathan even had impulsivity, where he ignored the feelings of his followers and never kept promises and commitments (Pennsylvania State University, 2018), even something as small as “I’ll get that input on your project to you by end of day.” He never considered the consequences of his actions on others (Pennsylvania State University, 2018), like failing to respond to an email question or ignoring voicemails when a person needed more input to do their own job.
Jonathan had all six of the Dark-Side Personality Traits. Can you imagine how difficult and exhausting it was to work for Jonathan? Much of my energy was spent either trying to get the resources I needed to complete my job or picking up the pieces of Jonathan’s own ineptness. How many of the six Dark-Side Personality Traits did your worst leader have?
Understanding these traits has helped me not only better understand the leaders I have worked under, but self-reflect on what traits I have and what behaviors I need to change to be a stronger leader myself. By considering the success and disasters of leaders we have worked with and what traits they have, we can better understand our own leadership journey.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7thed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University. (2018). Lesson 2: Trait approach. Leadership in work — PSYCH 485. Online course lesson, Penn State World Campus. Retrieved August 28, 2018 from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1942231/modules/items/25010751