The personality of leaders

Written by Dr Timothy Hawkes OAM, Co-Director of Truwell

The enigmatic brooding of Putin. The clinical precision of Merkel. The irascible aggression of Trump. What personality works best in leaders?

What personality is being revealed about our leaders during these COVID-19 times? In so many ways, our leaders, and we ourselves, are being pressure tested. Our personality is being revealed.

Some would suggest “political personality” is an oxymoron, with many political leaders having the personality of brick. This is a bit rough, because our leaders are probably the same as us, except their personality is more on show. Whether as teacher, parent, partner or any other, we are leaders, if not of others, then certainly, of ourselves. So – what sort of personality do we have?

Some personality characteristics, such as sociability, are attractive. Other characteristics, such as irritability, are unattractive. The person who wishes to be thought a leader, needs to develop a personality that is attractive.

A good-looking person can be ruined by a bad-looking personality.

Hippocrates (c.460BC – 370 BC) and his successor Galen (127 – c.200), identified four different temperaments in people. These temperaments were thought to be controlled by different liquids in the body called ‘humours’.

People who had a lot of phlegm were thought to be calm, detached and Putinisitic. Those with a lot of yellow bile were thought to be choleric and Trump-like. Too much black bile would make you melancholic and too much blood would make you at home on the passionate peninsula of Iberia.

Having noted the above, it is worth remembering that temperament is not fixed. The influence of inherited biological traits can be modified by upbringing and environment. Nature and Nurture vie with each other in being the main determinant of personality – which is generally not fixed until a person is about 30.

Intuitively, many would say that extroverts are more likely to be leaders than introverts. Extraverts get their energy from people. They are sociable. Introverts recharge by being by themselves. They tend to be more reserved. However, it would not be correct to limit leadership to the extraverts. Marie Curie, an acknowledged leader in science and medicine, was probably an introvert. Yet, she was a giant in her field.

It can be terrifying trying to be someone you are not. An introvert trying to act like an extrovert can suffer from emotional exhaustion and suffer from what researchers call “ego depletion” – which is not good news.

Type A people are generally competitive and achievement oriented. Good. But, they can also be driven and self-advancing. Bad. Type B people are generally easy-going and relaxed. Good. But, they can also be lazy and given to avoiding challenges. Bad.

If in Africa, and you hear the term “the big five”, you would be thinking of the Black rhino, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African lion and African leopard. In psychology, “the big five” are the main personality traits which are:

  • Openness to experience.
  • Conscientiousness.
  • Extroversion.
  • Neuroticism.
  • Agreeableness.

Most people would say that leaders are typically:

  • Open to new experiences.
  • Conscientious.
  • Extroverted.
  • Low in terms of neuroticism.
  • Agreeable.

However, it needs to be remembered that leadership opportunities exist for ALL personality types. An introvert on a computer can wield much more power than an extrovert with a megaphone.

Parents are leaders. Teachers are leaders. We are all leaders in some way or other – if not of others of ourselves. However, the question remains, have we the personality of a good leader?

Dr Tim Hawkes OAM

Co-Director “Truwell” wellbeing program for schools

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