Could Personality Assessment Reveal Unexpected Leaders?

There is an increasing body of evidence showing that diversity matters, especially when it comes from the top. Leadership teams of varying gender, ethnic and racial makeup perform better financially, experience less employee turnover, and have better customer orientation than their less diverse counterparts. They are also better at recruiting top talent, which leads to a cycle of increasing returns. This suggests that other kinds of diversity—for example, in personality and behavioral style—are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage.

Currently, our organizations are lacking in even the most basic personality diversity at the higher levels. Business leaders have come to associate certain personality traits with leadership potential. These traits include logic, rationality, decisiveness and impulse control. What we're describing here are the major characteristics of personality types ESTJ, ENTJ, ISTJ and INTJ, who take up the lion's share of leadership positions.

How do we make sure that we're developing leaders across the full range of personality profiles? The key is to stop judging people against the homogeneous norm and to leverage the natural talents that all personality types bring to the table. Using Keirsey's four temperament types as a jumping off point, here's how you might structure your leadership programs through the lens of type. 

Guardian Leaders: Doing Things Right

Guardians or ST personalities (ISTJ, ISFJ, ESTJ, ESFJ) take a 'bottom line' approach to leadership. Their major leadership contributions are observed as problem solving, taking action related to the execution of work, and staying focused on initiatives. They have a sharp eye for duty and are careful to respect the rights of others and the rules of the organization. From this, we see that Guardians have a natural proclivity for:

  • Developing efficient procedures and policies
  • Applying their experience and knowledge to problem solving
  • Behavior that achieves goal attainment through activities such as planning, scheduling and organizing resources
  • Significant attention to detail.

Hot buttons for a Guardian leader include rule breaking, lack of respect (for the rules and the facts) and employees who don't take their work seriously. They can be extremely blunt when communicating, and there's also a risk that Guardians will remain tied to proven methods and resist changes.

The path to leadership: Guardians have a reputation for being hard workers, and their natural proclivity for facts, efficiency and action means they have little or no problem implementing the organization's goals. Round out their leadership skills by providing training on sensitive communication; teach them to withhold judgment and give praise and appreciation where necessary. Ensure they stay relevant and future-minded by encouraging them to learn at least one new skill every year.

Rational Leaders: Focusing on the Future

Like Guardians, Rational or NT leaders (INTJ, INTP, ENTJ, ENTP) tend to be drawn towards problem solving. However, whereas Guardians focus on troubleshooting immediate problems, Rationals are drawn towards the possibility of what could be. Pragmatic, self-contained, independent, skeptical and focused on analysis, Rational leaders dream of finding a better way, and the needs of others take a back seat. In a leadership role, Rationals likely will be good at:

  • Experimenting, inventing and questioning the status quo
  • Replacing processes with new ones that the Rational believes to be more effective
  • Strategic analysis
  • Providing a critical long-range view
  • A willingness to try something new.

Rational leaders respect competency above all else and are likely to reward employees based on results. Hot buttons include those who trust only the tried-and-true way of doing things, people who are emotionally needy, and those who fail to show initiative. They can come across as arrogant or too intellectual.

The path to leadership: Rational leaders have little difficulty rising to the top of an organization, but they do need help moving into areas where they are a novice. Encourage them to invite (and listen to) input from others. Provide specific teamwork and leadership training, especially to INTJs and INTPs, who may view the social aspects of leadership as nnnnnnnnnbeing more trouble than they are worth. Consider placing these personalities in virtual leadership roles. Communicating through the internet mitigates the interpersonal factors that might otherwise trip up the introverted Rational leader.

Idealist Leaders: Finding the Potential in Others

Idealists or NF personality types (INFJ, INFP, ENFJ, ENFP) are passionately concerned with bringing on the development and motivation of people. In their day-to-day, they focus on developing relationships and creating opportunities for others through the medium of friendly cooperation. Core strengths include:

  • Motivating and inspiring people
  • Coaching, mentoring and developing the future potential of others
  • Being open to new ideas and experiences
  • Implementing behavior and reward structures that enhance someone's feeling of personal worth and importance
  • Behavior that encourages team members to develop close, mutually satisfying relationships.

These traits are largely associated with the caring professions such as social work and education. For that reason, the Idealist boss is fairly rare. On the other hand, cooperation and diplomacy are prized traits in our increasing connected world, and Idealists are talented in this area. Hot buttons include team members who refuse to work effectively with others, those who are intolerant of others' beliefs, and those who are reluctant to learn new skills.

The path to leadership: Idealists are often overlooked for leadership roles, despite being the type most likely to create an idealistic vision that motivates every single person in the organization. There is a suspicion, perhaps, that an Idealist leader will focus so much on personal growth that he or she will neglect to consider the team's performance, productivity and bottom-line results—an objection that is easily overcome by surrounding the Idealist with the right team. Confrontation is a challenge for these types, however, and Idealists may need significant skill-building in this area.

Artisan Leaders: Getting Things Done

Artisan or SP personalities (ISTP, ESTP, ISFP, ESFP) are hands-on leaders who are driven to get things done. They don't care too much for detailed analysis of why certain alternatives were chosen or discarded; all that matters is tangible and immediate results. Extremely goal-focused, the Artisan leader brings the following strengths to the boardroom:

  • Dealing with problems that have stumped others
  • Behavior that energizes the team towards action or achieving excellent performance
  • Developing personal friendships and loyalties
  • Maneuvering round obstacles to get things done
  • Being pragmatic, rather than strictly playing by the rules.

Within large organizations, Artisans often dominate the sales department where, as leaders, they are on solid ground. Outside these areas, Artisans may lack the strategic focus and subtlety of negotiation that mark people out as potential leaders. Hot buttons include a lack of immediate action, red tape, or tradition that stands in the way of reaching a goal.

The path to leadership: Artisans struggle to step back and take in the bigger picture. They often need specific training in long-range decision making, or placing in leadership positions where the focus is predominantly on near-term objectives, and someone else has the responsibility to consider the more fundamental issues that have to be addressed. Don't overlook their no-nonsense, unassuming, clear direction, however. A "let's do it, not talk about it" approach can be extremely motivating in some circumstances, as can their expedient and efficient responses to situations.

Summing It Up

Supporting a diverse and inclusive leadership team is not easy. It takes perseverance and dedication to challenge the status quo and recognize that each of the 16 types—not just ESTJ and ENTJ personalities—has the potential to become a great leader. Personality assessment provides a good roadmap for organizations to move beyond good intentions to real, measurable action when it comes to building trait diversity into the leadership pipeline.

Molly Owens

Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly.

Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.

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