The Personality of Leaders

When I tell people I’m a behavioral psychologist, there’s always a subset of the population that assumes I must know a lot about personality assessments like the DiSC, or the Meyers Briggs. And usually, the people who make that assumption are BIG FANS of personality assessments.

I should pause to warn you here – we’re about to get DEEPLY PHILOSOPHICAL!!! When I get asked about personality, I always grit my teeth and try to smile, but it’s hard because, as a behaviorist, I don’t believe in personality. In fact, I don’t even believe that, in reality, there’s a you that’s distinct from me that’s distinct from all of it. Want to argue with me? Sure, I know it feels like there’s a you that’s distinct from me that’s distinct from all of it, but if you watched the sunrise this morning, it also probably felt that you were standing on stationary ground while this giant flaming ball of gas moved up and over the horizon. It didn’t feel at all like you were on a giant rotating ball. Regardless of how you felt, the facts – against all of your feelings – say that you were moving while the sun – relatively speaking – was in the same place. If you’re scoring at home, that’s facts, 1… feelings 0.

Some of you will argue. “But there is a me that’s distinct from the rest of it!! It feels so real!” Ok. Well, if there’s a you that’s separate from it then you should be able to take yourself out of it. That is, you should be able to go somewhere that isn’t here (here being the known universe) and not be in the known universe for awhile. When you can do that, let me know. We’ll mark the score even. Until then, I’m putting it on the board: Facts, 2… feelings, 0. We may be headed for a shutout.

Personality psychology rests on the philosophical premise that there’s a you that is distinct from everything else. From this view, the world is made of parts. If it looks like there’s a whole, it’s only because the parts fit together to give it that look. And I’ll quit being snarky for a moment and say that, yes, you could certainly gather as much evidence in favor of the position as I have cast against it. And if you fundamentally disagree, then there’s probably nothing I can say to change your mind. And vice versa. We’re just too stubborn, you and I.

From a behavioral perspective, however, the world is just one thing. And though it might look as though there are parts to it, it only has that look based on the way the whole is moving around. Everything is connected with everything else. From that perspective, it isn’t that you or I have a personality that shapes how we will dance with all of it. Instead, it’s that you and I dance with it and, as we do, we get better at certain steps, develop those, become extremely practiced, and other ways of moving through it that we might have developed atrophy. Said another way, our motion through this thing isn’t an expression of who we are. Rather, who we think we are is an expression of our motion through this thing. Think of it like this: in this dance, the all of it sent us spinning one way within it. Once we had that momentum, it got more likely we would spin some ways and less so that we would spin others. The ways we are more likely to spin are our personality. But it isn’t who we are; it’s just the way we ended up spinning, based on our interaction with all of it.

Why is this at all important? Here’s why. When we treat personality as a thing that defines us and defines others, we start working around it as opposed to with it. Think about it. If you’ve got this thing that determines what you do, the sorts of situations you like and don’t, where you’ll be challenged and what you’ll find easy – but you can’t see it, you can’t locate it, and you can’t observe it – then what are you supposed to do about it? All there is to do is work around it. That’s why so much of the work that is based on DiSC or the Meyers Briggs focuses on communicating with different styles. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s incredibly useful. However, when that’s the only possibility, it’s also incredibly limiting. There is so much more possible.

Here’s another way to consider the phenomena of personality. Instead of thinking about it as a set of inherent traits, try thinking of it as a set of learned behavior-patterns. When we’re young, we have an incredible range of motion. There are so many of them, and they might all work to get us what we want or help us avoid what we don’t. We’re hungry. One of is hungry and throws a tantrum. Someone gives some candy to quiet us down. We start learning to become loud. The other of us is scolded when we tantrum and rewarded when we ask and then wait. We start learning to be quiet. The world has set us spinning. The patterns of our behavior are getting set.

Fast forward. Those us of who have been practicing being loud all these years find situations where it would work better to be quiet uncomfortable. We don’t like it. We feel awkward. Of course we do. We spent the last decades of our lives being loud. Instead of being asked to Tango, we’re being asked to Waltz. The new moves feel awkward. But that’s the way new moves are supposed to feel.

Not only that, but we’re also stuck with the idea that there really is a “me” that’s different than the “you.” And “I” talk about how I “am” and describe my behavior patterns and treat the descriptions as if they’re actually me. Then it gets harder to see myself as any other way but the descriptions. I think I’m “funny” and now serious things might occur as a threat. I’m “shy” and now I avoid places where I might talk to strangers. I’m not going to bore you with the research (though I won’t promise I won’t bore you), but – as far as anything really is – this is all true. Most of what we think is real isn’t. It’s just a description of something else. That applies especially to ourselves.

So what if you aren’t a personality? What if that thing you thought was you was just some ways you learned to behave? Well, then you could learn other ways. And when you started learning them and got uncomfortable, you might see it has having less to do with who you “are,” and moreso with the simple fact that learning new things is uncomfortable for almost everyone.

And that’s where I think personality assessments are most valuable. Not because it tells you who you are, but because it tells you where you’re comfortable. It points to areas where you could grow, new things you could try, and new capacities you could develop. And, if you’ll allow yourself to have it, that’s where the joy is. Do you remember being four? For most of us, being four was great. And you could say that was because you didn’t have anything to worry about, but I think that’s bogus. Four year olds are small people in a world of giants. They have TONS of things to worry about. It isn’t that. What I think instead is that, when we were four, we were growing new capacities like weeds. Every day there was something new we could do that we couldn’t do the day before, and it was magical.

There are two final things I want to leave you with. First, as you develop leaders, look for people who are willing to go beyond their personality. If life were predictable, we wouldn’t need leaders. We’d be fine with managers. But that isn’t how life works. Not only does it throw us curve-balls, it throws us pitches no one has even seen before. Find people who are capable in their own personality style, but willing to challenge themselves and grow and develop new capacities. Find the loud-mouth who is willing to try on being quiet and listening. Find the introvert who is willing to throw themselves into a high-level networking event.

And second, give them those opportunities. And when they feel and perhaps behave awkwardly during them, reinforce them for trying. Ask them what they learned and reinforce the answers. Appreciate that it takes something to step outside the way you’ve been effectively doing things for as long as you can remember. Not only will you have leaders who can adapt to what the situation calls for, but your leaders will have a lot of personality. And, given that a lot of personality is just a large capacity for adaptable action, it’s no accident it goes a long way.