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SPRING 2012 V O L . 5 3 N O.

Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux

How to Become
a Better Leader

Please note that gray areas reflect artwork that has been
intentionally removed. The substantive content of the ar-
ticle appears as originally published. REPRINT NUMBER 53312

How to Become THE LEADING

How can

a Better Leader
recognize and
manage their
Good leaders make their work look easy. But the reality is that most FINDINGS
have had to work hard on themselves by managing or compen- Executives need

to understand their
sating for potentially career-limiting traits. To grow as an executive, natural inclinations
in order to modify
you need to recognize and manage your strongest tendencies. them or compen-
Most successful

executives have
had to work hard
on themselves.
Leaders need to

recognize their
WHEN EXECUTIVES IDENTIFY a leader they admire, they often underestimate how much outlier tendencies
that individual may have struggled to curb certain patterns of behavior or certain dominant facets and learn how
others perceive
of his or her personality. Great leaders make it look easy. But in truth, the majority of effective lead- those tendencies.
ers that we have observed even so-called
naturals like Virgin Groups Richard Branson
Virgin Groups
have worked hard on themselves. Richard Branson
has said that he
The traits that serve an executive well in one was shy and
leadership position often do not work well in an- retiring before
starting the airline.
other. Moving up the hierarchy into new roles or
environments, executives may find they need to
play up or rein in different facets of their personal-
ity. What were strengths can become weaknesses.
Fortunately, advances in personality research
can provide executives with a much richer picture
of their personality. Psychologists have identified
countless traits that distinguish individuals from
one another. Research in recent decades has con-
verged toward five broad dimensions, each
comprising a cluster of traits. These dimensions
appear so robust that they have been dubbed the
Big Five. Now widely accepted, the same five fac-
tors are found consistently with different research
methods, as well as across time, contexts and cul-
tures. (See The Making of the Big Five, p. 53.)
In contrast with other models of personality,
the Big Five were derived from the everyday lan-
guage that people use to describe one another.
Starting with a master list of nearly 18,000 person-
ality descriptors, the list was eventually boiled
down to five fundamental factors: need for stabil-
ity,1 extraversion, openness, agreeableness and


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Of course, personality scores are not performance You can be too composed. Poise under pressure
scores; no personality traits lead directly to positive or helps executives project a reassuring image when
negative performance. However, those scores can others may be inclined to panic. Many executives we
alert executives to areas that require attention. A trait coach pride themselves on their ability to remain
that is effective in one context may become redun- calm. The risk of this trait is that they can appear
dant or counterproductive when the situation uninspiring or lacking in urgency. They may have
changes.2 (See The Curse of Your Qualities, p. 54.) difficulty understanding why others are worried.
Moreover, such executives may come across as
Common Leadership Pitfalls unduly confident. One strategy to counter overop-
Leaders at all levels are under intense pressure to push timism is to create mental lists. Alongside three
harder and go faster. Under these conditions, execu- hopeful reasons for why something will work out,
tives sometimes have difficulty controlling their an executive prone to overoptimism should come
inherent psychological preferences. And the higher up with three gloomy reasons why it may not.
they go in an organization, the more their behaviors Or you can be too impatient and overreact.
come under scrutiny and influence others. Sometimes successful executives have a pronounced
Drawing on our extensive coaching work with se- tendency to be impatient. Robert Iger, CEO of Walt
nior executives, we identify some of the most Disney, has acknowledged in an article in the New
common leadership pitfalls associated with high and York Times that this is an area hes worked on: Ive
low scores on each of the Big Five personality dimen- learned, in general, to be more patient. Ive learned
sions. (See About the Research.) We offer a mix of to listen better and manage reaction time better. What
testimony from high-profile executives and anony- I mean by that is not overreacting to things that are
mous quotes from executives we have coached to said to me, because sometimes its easy to do that.3
illustrate those potential hazards and how to deal Certain executives we coach are less resilient to
with them. (See Risks and Remedies, p. 55.) stress and struggle to stay calm, reflecting a high need
for stability. Too often, they deal with their anger by
1. Need for Stability: suppressing it. The problem is that the anger can ac-
How Much Stress Is Too Much? cumulate unseen and unexpressed until it spills over
Emotional stability can be a valuable quality for ex- on an unsuspecting victim. To avoid overreacting, ex-
ecutives, helping them cope with stress, setbacks ecutives need to find ways of emptying their anger
and uncertainty. But it has its drawbacks, too. container before it reaches the brim. The simplest
method is to verbalize those negative emotions: I feel
disappointed/frustrated/upset/irritated because .
The research for this article is based on findings from more than 2,000 in-depth con-
Research in brain imaging suggests that putting our
versations with international executives regarding their personality scores. These feelings into words dampens those feelings.
interviews were conducted by us separately, while the executives were attending Whether stating an emotion or writing it in a
leadership programs at Duke University, London Business School and IMD. journal, the simple act of expressing it activates a
We used the NEO PI-R five-factor instrument, which has become the dominant
region of the brain involved in forms of self-control
framework for researching personality and a staple ingredient in many leadership
development programs. (Executives who have not been exposed to it can assess and self-regulation.4 It is a bit like drilling a hole in
themselves free on a noncommercial version of the test, IPIP, available at http:// the side of the anger container. Executives some- times worry that verbalizing emotion will make
The personality inventory comprises 30 facets, but not all of these are equally rel-
them look weak. In fact, it conveys confidence. It
evant to the work environment. Based on our experience, particularly Ginka Toegels
previous work as a practicing psychotherapist, we spent 80% of the time in our one-
expels negative energy while providing others with
to-one sessions talking about 15 of those dimensions, which we believe represent a better understanding of how the executive ticks.
the top challenges for most executives.
The confidential nature of these sessions prevent us from naming the executives, 2. Extraversion:
so we cite them anonymously. We also draw on publicly available interviews with
high-profile business figures. Although we did not conduct Big Five personality inven-
How Much Company Is Too Much?
tories with these leaders, their comments reflect key insights about personality traits Extraversion reflects our desire to be with other
that they learned to manage as they moved into positions of leadership. people and to draw energy from them. Leadership is


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Psychologists have identified countless published their results in 1936. That master a rich conceptual framework for integrating
personality traits and dimensions that dis- list was reduced, in several stages, until it diverse research findings and theory in per-
tinguish us from one another. But research was eventually boiled down to just five di- sonality psychology.
in recent years has converged toward five mensions in 1961 by two U.S. Air Force The stronger the trait, the more likely it is
broad dimensions, each comprising a clus- researchers, who had rare access to main- that the person in question will display trait-
ter of traits that account for the majority of frame computers. Unfortunately, their related behaviors in terms of how he or she
the differences among individual personali- findings failed to reach an academic audi- relates to people, solves problems, plans
ties. These dimensions have been dubbed ence until the 1980s. At that point, the work and expresses himself or herself. In-
the Big Five. introduction of the personal computer and vestigations into where those traits actually
Although researchers did not set out to the availability of specialized software en- come from suggest that around half of the
find five dimensions, that is what emerged abled other research teams to factor analyze variance is inherited and the other half is ac-
from their analyses of the data. The line of the data and confirm the existence of five quired through experience, especially in
research began with Gordon Allport and Har- overarching domains. The first inventory early childhood.ii Though major life crises
old Odbert, who scoured dictionaries to based on the Big Five factors was launched occasionally produce shifts on some person-
identify 17,953 words in everyday language by Paul T. Costa, Jr. and Robert R. McCrae in ality dimensions, most changes in adulthood
that people use to describe one another and 1985.i These five factors have since proved tend to be gradual and limited.iii

about influencing people, so it can be an advantage and adapt their energy levels accordingly.
to be outgoing, assertive and energetic. There is In particular, leaders with high energy levels need
strong evidence that these characteristics help exec- to be aware that this disposition can create tension
utives to be perceived as leaderlike.5 The association with slower-paced people, especially those whom the
with effective leadership is much weaker.6 leaders regard as slow-minded or uncommitted.
You can be too assertive or too energetic. High Worse, these slower-paced individuals may then
scores on the extraversion dimension can trigger per- underperform, living down to the executives dimin-
ceptions that the executive is too talkative or ished expectations.7 As a senior executive from the
domineering with the added implication that he or finance sector told us: Whenever I had to meet with
she tends not to listen. Many executives face this chal- [one unhurried colleague], he would absolutely suck
lenge, including the country manager of a global the life out of me. I just tried to avoid dealing with
foods giant we coached. Discussing his proposed ac- him. But then we were mandated to work on the same
tion plan, he conceded: Ive realized that I have a cross-functional team and I realized that beneath that
habit of taking over in meetings. I want to get better at leisurely exterior was a very sharp mind. Ive become
listening and to give less assertive people more space much more accepting of his ways because of what he
to express their opinions. So I need to listen more, but can bring to the table.
I also need to show I have processed what theyve said. Or you can be too introspective. Executives
The personality scores just confirm feedback Ive re- who are more internally focused often need to learn
ceived in the past but not paid much attention to. to behave like extraverts to adopt behaviors that
A simple remedy for executives with a tendency are more communicative, to give presentations and
to dominate proceedings is the four sentence rule: to socialize.
Whatever you have to say, limit yourself to four sen- Constant communication can be draining for
tences. Then ask: Do you want me to carry on? those who have some introverted tendencies. Take
Another facet of extraversion is higher activity the example of Carol Bartz, the former CEO of
levels. This would seem to be an advantage in terms Yahoo. She described herself as kind of a border-
of inspiring others, but it can prove wearing. This line extrovert-introvert in an interview with the
was a key learning point for a senior executive from San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. As Bartz told the
the retail sector, who told us: Theres a fine divid- Chronicle, I recharge my batteries by getting a little
ing line between energetic and frenetic and I alone time and gardening. Introverts refresh by
probably overstep that boundary on occasion. In having some time to themselves.8
the process, you end up creating chaos and unset- Executives who are both reserved and serious
tling people, rather than invigorating them. often wear solemn facial expressions. They may be
Fast-paced people need to recognize others needs given to frowning or pursing their lips. One remedy


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 53 3/6/12 5:02 PM


for solemn-looking executives is to find an object that Leaders with this experimental orientation may
prompts them to think about their facial expression. need someone alongside them to keep them
We suggest they buy a mug, perhaps with a hu- grounded. Sharer has learned to impose his own disci-
morous motto on it, to carry around with them. And pline: Ive decided that I need to look at these
this mug is a reminder: What is your expression big-picture options two or three times a year and then
right now? The idea is not to smile if you dont feel put them away.11
like it just to remember to relax your facial mus- Executives who possess a great deal of intellectual
cles. Relaxing (and smiling) has been shown to have curiosity or creativity can also overwhelm others with
a physiological impact, not only on the executive but the complexity or abstraction of what they are trying
also on colleagues, who tend to mirror the emotion.9 to communicate. They can end up confusing others
rather than enlightening them. They must force them-
3. Openness: selves to simplify the message and to translate their
How Much Newness Is Too Much? thoughts into terms that others relate to.
Openness includes peoples tendency to show intel- Someone who struggled with overelaborate
lectual curiosity, independence of judgment and thinking is Cristbal Conde, former CEO of Sun-
big-picture orientation. Higher scores on these di- Gard Data Systems. In a New York Times article, he
mensions have value for leadership roles.10 But they recalled a piece of advice he received: A boss once
dont necessarily help the leader connect with others. told me: Cris, youre a smart guy, but that doesnt
You can be too innovative or too complex. mean that people can absorb a list of 18 things to
Speculating on alternative viewpoints and seeking do. Focus on a handful of things. Very constructive
additional perspectives can be frustrating for col- criticism, and the way Ive translated that is, when I
leagues who are looking for clarity, consistency and do reviews, everything is threes three positives
direction. If the leader is easily drawn into what if and three things they should do differently.12
discussions, it can be very unsettling. In the Har- In addition to highlighting the critical objectives,
vard Business Review, Kevin Sharer, CEO and now executives inclined to overcomplicate should adopt a
chairman of Amgen, noted: Im fascinated with coaching-oriented approach, whereby they check
long-term strategic alternatives. I like to reflect that others follow their meaning and have a chance
on and talk about those options. But Sharer has re- to contribute.
alized that when a CEO often discusses possible Or you can be too conventional. Leaders at the
change, it can be destabilizing to the organization. more conformist end of the spectrum risk coming
across as resistant to new ideas. In the
THE CURSE OF YOUR QUALITIES words of a chief technology officer we
Each of the Big Five personality dimensions consists of a cluster of traits and those traits can be worked with: I came up through the
perceived as both positive and negative. manufacturing operations. And that
High Resilient, calm Unconcerned, uninspiring insist on seeing the facts. But now Im at
Need for Stability a [senior] level where people are very
Low Reactive, excitable Unstable, insecure
High Sociable, assertive Attention-seeking, domineering
willing to share their opinion and expect
Extraversion an opinion. So Ive had to teach myself to
Low Reserved, reflective Aloof, self-absorbed
get out of that conservative zone and
High Creative, receptive Unpredictable, unfocused
Openness in part, Ive done that by volunteering
Low Pragmatic, data-driven Closed-minded, dogmatic
for task forces that give me more of an
High Compassionate, cooperative Nave, submissive
Agreeableness opportunity to see the big picture.
Low Competitive, challenging Argumentative, untrustworthy
The challenge for executives un-
High Persistent, driven Stubborn, obsessive comfortable with ambiguity is to
Low Flexible, spontaneous Sloppy, unreliable move when not all the information is
No Strong Preferences Adaptable, moderate, Unprincipled, inscrutable, calculating available. Leaders understanding this
(on all five dimensions) reasonable
tendency in themselves can work to


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 54 3/6/12 5:02 PM

Moving up the hierarchy into new roles or environments, executives may find they need to play up or rein in different facets of their
personality. What were strengths can become weaknesses.


High: U>Liii>Viii` U6iL>ii

Too Fiery U >i>}iV>i
Need for Stability
Low: U-ii>`L>ViV U
Too Composed the negatives as well as the positives.
High: U ii}V>V`iL>i U7i>}]viviiVi
Too Assertive rule.
High: U7i>}viii U,i>ii>`iiV
Too Energetic harsh view of those with low energy them to keep your pace.
U >iii>i>i
also slow-minded.
Low: U-V>}>v U
Too Introspective U-iv>V>iiV>`iv>iii U`>LiV>i`i>
your face.
High: U1i}vviV>i U`iiii}`i`
Too Innovative ViVi>Li` U,i}>iLvVi>
High: Uiii>L>Vi U}}iVV>viLiVi
Openness Too Complex priorities U->viLi>`ii
context, not vice versa.
Low: U1Vi>>`>} U
Too Conventional experiment without conclusive data U i}i>V`>>V>i
High: U*iVii`>>i]i>>>i] U
Too Considerate spineless i`>LiiVii`>v>
Low: U*iVii`>i]V>}] U,iiLi>V>i>
Too Competitive self-promoting for others.
Low: U*iVii`>V>]V>V>}] U/iii>LivL`
Too Watchful untrustworthy U1iiv`iiV>]V`}
Low: U*iVii`>L]>}}ii U-iii>i>}
Too Rational U,iiLii>V>}}vii>}i
High: UV>>}iiLL`>i U-VV>V}`i>`>i-
Too Thorough and delays problem recognition. tions, rather than making suggestions.
Ui}viL}Vi UiL`>iV>i}i
involvement in low-value-adding areas.
High: U ]viL>>Vii U->V}vvxivi
Conscientiousness Too Committed working day.
U i>iii>`>Lii>
Low: U>i>vi>`iV U
Too Decisive too trusting of intuition U-ii

push themselves out of their comfort zone and cally cluster more on one side of the continuum than
build up their openness to new experiences. the other. With agreeableness, there is no such pat-
tern.13 The location of the majority varies sharply by
4. Agreeableness: national culture, by industry, by company culture
How Much Confrontation and even by function.
Is Too Much? To give an extreme example, our coaching work
Agreeableness is a measure of the importance people with investment bankers revealed a very low aver-
place on getting along with others. On the other four age score on agreeableness. And that is an advantage
dimensions of the Big Five, effective executives typi- in an ultracompetitive environment. Executives


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 55 3/6/12 5:02 PM


who score low on agreeableness provide edge and a worked to suppress his tendency to react to ideas
results focus that is invaluable in business. They are with a sentence starting with the word but. In-
also precious team members, as they are comfort- stead, he tried to begin his responses with and,
able voicing criticism and disrupting groupthink. which is more inclusive and constructive.
You can be too rational, competitive and It can be helpful for leaders to be politically savvy
watchful. Executives who are tough-minded and and sensitive to the dynamics of influence within an
direct tend to be unflinching in facing conflict and organization. But leaders with a low need for agree-
tough issues. As a senior executive from the luxury ableness can also be too guarded and somewhat
goods sector told us: Im a straight talker. I have no defensive, making it difficult for others to trust
problem telling people that they messed up and them. Consider the experience of a project director
Im always puzzled why people make such a big deal from the automobile industry: By nature, Im not
out of it. I mean, were all adults and were all trying the most open person, he told us. But Ive worked
to improve. She has a point, but her failure to com- on lots of projects and Ive found that unless I share
prehend the discomfort felt by others could lead what Im thinking, its very difficult to connect with
them to see her as blunt or aggressive. new teams. Theyre wary. So at the start of a project,
For executives like this, coaching advice often re- I always tell them something about myself, includ-
volves around the issue of how the comments are ing my family situation, and some of the things I
packaged. The goal is to make it clear that the critique struggle with. I also make a joke about being Ger-
relates to the idea, not the individual submitting it. man. It kick-starts the relationship.
There are various ways of softening criticism. Execu- Or you can be too considerate. Executives on
tives can take the edge off their remarks by drawing the more agreeable end of the scale are both trust-
attention to the feedback-providing role they are ing and trustworthy. They are likely to promote
playing. Using phrases such as Let me play devils ad- collaboration and to be attentive to others opin-
vocate for a moment or If I put on my critics hat is ions, development needs and well-being. But
one way to accomplish this. If it is hard to find a dip- agreeable executives can have difficulty delivering
lomatic way of saying what needs saying, executives negative feedback or making decisions that risk up-
can preface their comments with an acknowledg- setting others. Take the example of Sue Murray,
ment that what follows may seem harsh. executive director of the George Foundation and
Similarly, executives with a strong competitive former CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foun-
streak can come across as ruthless, uncooperative or dation. When asked about her greatest weaknesses
lacking in larger perspective. They may get results, in the Age, she replied: I can be too nice when
but colleagues and subordinates are less likely to trust tough decisions need to be made, which is not help-
them. They hence have difficulty building up a strong ful to anyone. It just prolongs the inevitable.14
network; that absence of peer support becomes criti- Highly agreeable executives must ask themselves:
cal as they reach senior levels. A plant manager in the Why do I have this need to be liked? Of course, the
high-tech sector told us: When I started as a man- answer may go deep into childhood, but posing the
ager, I was pretty aggressive. I could really intimidate question at least launches the reflection process. More
people. But that approach will only take you so far. I practically, we encourage these executives to switch
think Ive gone from making my way by trying to be mind-sets from I want to be liked to I want to be
the smartest guy in the room constantly picking perceived as fair. Research by organizational behavior
faults in the arguments of others to trying more scholar Daan van Knippenberg and his colleagues has
to build on the input of others. shown that fairness is the dominant concern when
Once he realized the discomfort he was creating employees evaluate managers, not likability.15
for those on the receiving end, that executive
changed the way he framed his feedback. Rather 5. Conscientiousness:
than laying into the persons flawed logic, he devel- How Much Focus Is Too Much?
oped a softer touch, explaining that the proposal Conscientiousness reflects the extent to which we
was perhaps not yet ready for prime time. He also want to structure and organize our lives. Drive, reli-


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ability and persistence are important qualities for making up their minds, others realize that they
leaders, but they can prove dysfunctional if they are tend to make decisions quickly, based on instinct.
not properly channeled. For example, William Green, chairman of Accen-
You can be too thorough. One risk for highly ture, told the New York Times that he has learned to
conscientious leaders is that their perfectionism become more methodical and less seat of the
can cause them to fuss over details while losing pants in his decision-making style as he rose
sight of the big picture. That can be a serious prob- through the ranks: I have purposely tried to get
lem, as highlighted by the CEO of a family business better grounding in the analytics behind the deci-
we worked with. As he put it: I have quite an appe- sion making and used that to check to see if there
tite for details, so once I get to hear of a problem, I was a huge disconnect between what my instinct
keep asking questions and I have difficulty letting told me and what the analytics told me.16
go of it. That can distract me from the essentials. So For executives low on decision-making caution,
Im trying to be more selective about my deep in- it can be helpful to appoint someone to play devils
volvement but its a work in progress. advocate someone who has full license from the
Executives with this tendency need to ask them- executive to question his or her snap decisions with-
selves: Is this a high-leverage activity or could my out negative career consequences.
time be better invested elsewhere? They also need to
authorize their direct reports to repeat this question Becoming Self-Aware
whenever it seems like the executive is getting bogged Several of the preceding examples suggest ways of
down in time-wasting details. Perfectionism has an- managing psychological preferences. The inevitable
other unfortunate consequence. Sensing that their starting point is self-awareness.
boss is inclined to get too involved or to microman- Without it, executives will find it
age, employees may grow reluctant to flag issues. hard to evolve or find coping
Perfectionist executives need to put on their coach- strategies. In fact, a survey
ing hats and switch to questioning mode, so that of 75 members of the
their input comes across as help, not control. Stanford Graduate
Beyond the professional harm that these prefer- School of Business
ences can cause, they can also wreak havoc in ones Advisor y Council
private life. Highly conscientious leaders can be- rated self-awareness
come workaholics, obsessive in their pursuit of as the most important
goals, raising the risk of burnout and poor work-life capability for leaders to
balance. They can also struggle in situations calling develop.17 Executives need
for flexibility. A supply chain director in the telecom to know where their natural
sector told us: I can get overly focused sometimes. I
feel an intense responsibility for my area to the ex-
tent that I just lose balance I work too hard, I
neglect my health and my family. And, of course, the PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has
said that she benefited from
less time I spend with my family, the less I feel like I feedback from mentors.
belong with them and the more I throw myself
into the work. So thats a cycle Im trying to break.
An unhealthy commitment to work is not some-
thing executives can change overnight. But one
approach executives who have this tendency can take is
to cut back the working day by 15 minutes. Then, the
following week, shave off another 15 minutes, and so
on each week until you reach a target workday length.
Or you can make decisions too quickly. While
some leaders can be inclined to overanalyze before


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 57 3/6/12 5:02 PM


inclinations lie in order to boost them or compen- esting. But maybe you could think about this slightly
sate for them. Self-awareness is about identifying differently. I just said, Thats crap. This is never
personal idiosyncrasies the characteristics that going to happen. Im sure they were all thinking
executives take to be the norm but actually repre- that, but they were saying it in a much more gentle
sent the exception. way. Id come out of the meeting, and one of the
Sometimes self-awareness comes early in ones guys would pull me aside and say, You could have
career, prompted by a comment from a trusted col- said the thing slightly differently.19
league or boss. In an article in Fortune International, Over the past two decades, companies have in-
Lauren Zalaznick, now chairman, Entertainment & creased the opportunities for executives to gain
Digital Networks and Integrated Media for NBC- insight into their personalities and receive feedback
Universal, recalled that the best advice she ever from multiple sources. These instruments can even
received was from her first boss, who told her: be distributed to friends and family, who may be only
Throughout your career, youre going to hear lots of too pleased to enlighten their loved ones on how they
feedback from show-makers and peers and employ- come across. And self-awareness is one of the most
ees and bosses. If you hear a certain piece of feedback frequently cited outcomes of leadership coaching.20
consistently and you dont agree with it, it doesnt But some executives resist this process for a long
matter what you think. Truth is, youre being per- time. Take the case of David Pottruck, the former
ceived that way.18 CEO of Charles Schwab. Earlier in his career, he was
On her rise to the top, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi summoned to his bosss office and told that his col-
has also benefited from constructive feedback: Im leagues did not trust him. As Pottruck recalled in the
a pretty honest and outspoken person, she told the Harvard Business Review, That feedback was like a
Cisco CEO John Chambers Wall Street Journal Europe. So, you sit in a meeting dagger to my heart. I was in denial, as I didnt see
has said that, initially, it was and somebody presents a ... five-year plan. [Other myself as others saw me. ... I had no idea how self-
not easy for him to learn to
be more collaborative. executives] would say, You know, thats very inter- serving I looked to other people. Still, somewhere in
my inner core the feedback resonated as true.21
Success in multiple roles is unlikely unless a
leader can accept and overcome his or her blind
spots. John Donaldson, former CEO of the Thomas
Cook Group, testified to this in a book called The
Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: When I look back at the
way I behaved when I was directing [one of the
groups two business units], I am encouraged by the
progress I have made. The journey is not over, but
Ive changed enough to say honestly that today, I
would not employ a manager who behaves the way
I did back then. If I was the CEO of the manager I
was then, I think Id fire myself!22

Prisoners of Our Personalities?

The objective is not to undergo a personality
change. It is to be yourself, with more skill.23 The
point that comes across from many of the examples
given in this article is that most successful leaders
have had to work on themselves in order to manage
or tone down potentially career-limiting traits. It
required hard work and introspection. That is the
bad news. The good news is that we are not prison-
ers of our personalities. Personality is about


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 58 3/6/12 5:02 PM

In general, aspiring leaders need to become aware of their
outlier tendencies and learn how they are perceived by others.
Passion, hard work and intensity are vital traits for leaders, but
those same traits can also be overwhelming. The lesson here is
straightforward: The bundle of traits that work for you as a leader
preferences preferred ways of behaving and tives who may be too assertive or too competitive. The
we can behave in ways that run contrary to our per- behavioral skills associated with coaching (asking ques-
sonality. Indeed, we all have to do this from time to tions, active listening, making suggestions, providing
time. Some people do it exceedingly well. feedback) counteract several excesses simultaneously.
Take the case of Richard Branson, who has For executives who do not feel up to making
dressed up in silly costumes to publicize the Virgin such behavioral changes, self-awareness helps in
Group he founded. He told the Independent: Every two other ways. First, it allows us to share our par-
single time I am asked to do this sort of thing ... and ticular foibles and shortcomings. This makes it
make a spectacle of myself, there is always some- easier for people to read us and to help us keep our
thing in the pit of my stomach that turns. 24 extreme behaviors in check.
Branson told Strategy + Business that his underly- Second, self-awareness alerts us to activities and
ing personality bears little relation to his situations we are likely to find difficult. The sim-
flamboyant public persona, but that he has learned plest antidote is to find a complementary person
to play the role: Before we launched the airline, I who can act as a counterweight. If you tend to be
was a shy and retiring individual who couldnt disorganized, find someone who is meticulous; if
make speeches and get out there. I had to train you tend toward the big picture, find a pragmatist;
myself into becoming more of an extrovert.25 if you tend to be impulsive, find someone more risk
Bransons example shows to what extent it is averse; if you tend to be too trusting or open, find
possible to expand our repertoire of behaviors be- someone more skeptical or politically astute. At a
yond our underlying preferences. But such efforts joint coaching session we held with two executives
take their toll. They are only sustainable if the per- from the packaging industry, a divisional director
son can figure out how to recover and recharge. and his deputy, the former observed: Looking at
Otherwise, there is a danger of burnout. our scores, I can see how he complements me on
Sometimes, an executive who expands his or her several dimensions where I am a bit extreme
repertoire of behaviors may allow new group dynam- which may be something I sensed when I chose him
ics to emerge as well. When Ciscos top management [as deputy] and certainly explains some of our
team decided to adopt a more collaborative ap- fights. I guess, the takeaway for me, is that those
proach, it was CEO John Chambers who found it fights maybe save me from myself.
trickiest to adapt. Accustomed to dominating meet- Consider, too, the example of the late Steve Jobs.
ings, he could not help stepping in to provide the According to an article in Psychology Today, he made
answer. It was hard for me at first to learn to be little effort to curb his salient personality traits
collaborative, he told the Harvard Business Review. narcissism, aesthetic sensibility, imagination,
But when I learned to let go and give the team the perfectionism, obsessive nature, faith in intuition
time to come to the right conclusion, I found they and indeed leveraged them to create innovative and
made just as good decisions, or even better. I had visually pleasing tech products for the masses.27 But
to develop the patience to let the group think.26 he picked alongside him at Apple a partner capable of
It is worth investing effort into developing ones attenuating the potential liabilities of his own ex-
coaching skills. We mentioned this remedy in connec- treme personality. Tim Cook, Apples CEO since
tion with the psychological tendencies to be too August 2011, shares Jobs intensity and workaholic
complex or too thorough. But it also applies to execu- tendencies. But in other respects he was a perfect foil.


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 59 3/6/12 5:02 PM


The most common observation about Cook, accord- 11.iv*i]/iv]>>`

ing to an article in Fortune called Apple: The Genius Business Review 82, no. 7/8 (July/August 2004): 66-74.

Behind Steve, has been how temperamentally differ- 12. >]-Vi/i>i]i ii] i
York Times, Jan. 16, 2010, 2.
ent he was from Jobs.28 Cook is pragmatic, consistent
and calm, and he never raises his voice. Jobs, of
14.Vi]/i/} *
course, was none of the above and he knew it. >]}iiLi]>>]"Vx]n]
In general, aspiring leaders need to become aware 15. D.L. van Knippenberg, D. De Cremer and B. van Knip-
of their outlier tendencies and learn how they are iLi}]i>`i>`>i\/i->ivi]
perceived by others. Passion, hard work and inten- European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology
16, no. 2 (March 2007): 113-140.
sity are vital traits for leaders, but those same traits
16. >]n,i ]i }] i
can also be overwhelming. The lesson here is York Times, Nov. 21, 2009, 2.
straightforward: The bundle of traits that work for 17. i}i]*-] Vi>>` >i] -
you as a leader right now can become a source of Vi}9iVi>`i]>>` i
problems on short notice. Where personality is con- Review 85, no. 2 (February 2007): 129-138.

cerned, executives must learn to adapt and to 18.<>>V]/i i`Vi i]i

International (Europe), July 6, 2009, 35.
watch out for too much of a good thing.
`> i/>`i"vv
-i>`i]7>-ii> i]]]
Ginka Toegel is a professor of organizational behavior
sec. R, p. 5.
and leadership at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Jean-Louis Barsoux is a senior research fellow at 20. K. Ely, L.A. Boyce, J.K. Nelson, S.J. Zaccaro, G. Hernez-
IMD. Comment on this article at http://sloanreview. i>`77>] >>}i>`i
>V-, or contact the authors at smrfeed- }\,ii>`i}>i`>i]i>`i Quarterly 21, no. 4 (August 2010): 585-599.
21.i}ii>] Vi}9iVi>`i
REFERENCES 22.>>` >]/i-i1>-`i

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>Vi>`i>i/>vi>vvviV]>v Reprint 53312. For ordering information, see page 8.
Applied Psychology 93, no. 3 (May 2008): 602-616. Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012.
10.`}ii>]*i>>`i>`i All rights reserved.


A12-MI1-003 Toegel.indd 60 3/6/12 5:02 PM

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