What Makes a Successful Leader? And How to Identify the Personality Traits of a Leader

Identifying the best people for leadership positions is one of the most critical tasks facing business owners – because those people can make or break a business!

Not only does hiring the wrong leader cost time and money in the recruitment process, it also has a knock-on effect across the entire organisation. Smart CEO, back in 2017, reported that poor leadership can cause a 5-10% productivity drag in businesses – and when we’re all working in a highly competitive global marketplace, that 5-10% can translate into HUGE amounts of money.

Identifying the right leaders who have the right personality traits to succeed in a leadership role can prevent those massive losses, increase employee engagement, reduce staff turnover, and, ultimately, make the success of a business more likely.

But is it possible to identify leaders based on personality traits? And what does a successful leader’s personality look like? Here, we’ll be looking at the red flags and green flags when it comes to identifying potential leaders based on personality traits.

What is personality and how is it measured?

Ah, personality. We talk about personality every single day, because it’s what our approach to business psychology is largely based on. And all of us have at least a colloquial understanding of what personality is. 

But what exactly is it? What does it mean in the world of business? And can we reliably measure it?

Our friends across the Atlantic at the American Psychological Association define personality as follows:

“Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.”

And that’s a pretty good summary! When it comes to business psychology and using personality to help improve workplaces, we look at the personality traits of individuals and how those traits result in workplace behaviours – and through team or individual coaching, we’re able to help identify strengths to maximise workplace performance and reduce the negative impact of blind spots.

Measuring personality is a little trickier – but as a discipline, psychometrics (the science of measuring mental capacities and processes) has come a long way since the development of the first personality test way back in World War One.

Since then, a lot of personality tests have been based on The Big Five theory of personality, which states that every individual’s personality traits fall into five main areas:

  • Openness to experience: often accompanied by an appreciation for art, adventure, imagination and curiosity. Typified by creativity, a higher propensity for risk-taking and seeking out new experiences.
  • Conscientiousness: often realised in a sense of self-discipline, dutifulness and rule-abiding behaviours. Typified by higher impulse control, better emotional regulation and reliability.
  • Extraversion: individuals who score highly on extraversion are more likely to be sociable and enjoy the company of others. They feel energised by external things, while low extraversion scorers will be more reserved and prefer their own company.
  • Agreeableness: focuses on social harmony, with high-scorers being dutiful, trustworthy, and putting others’ needs before their own.
  • Neuroticism: this refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions, including anger, anxiety and depression. High-scorers are more likely to react emotionally to negative situations and be unable to handle high levels of stress.

Personality tests that use The Big Five theory score individuals either on those five scales directly or on derived personality factors that can be traced back to The Big Five. The interaction of scores on each of these scales determines an individual’s likelihood to behave in particular ways in particular contexts.

Personality using this method is seen as a trait-based model, not a type – which means that each of us has some elements of all five personality factors and we land somewhere on a spectrum for each. Type-based personality theory differs because it determines that individuals are a particular single type, rather than falling on a continuum of personality.

Now, there are thousands of measures of personality out there in the world. Not all of them are scientifically robust, however – and we’ve spoken a little about that before, which you can read here. [NB: needs link for May’s blog post BEFORE PUBLISHING!] Not all of them are directly based on The Big Five, but many are – simply because The Big Five theory is one of the most well-respected and well-researched models of personality there is to this day.

The measures we’ll focus on here are all incredibly robust, reliable and well-validated, and relied upon by business psychologists across the world to identify the personality traits of leaders.

Which personality traits are associated with successful leaders?

As we’ve seen, all of us fall somewhere on the spectrum of personality traits, which means that every single one of us is unique. Our traits interact with each other and with our experiences to result in behaviour.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to identify particular personality traits that make successful leadership more likely. So what are the personality traits that successful leaders tend to have?

Effective communication

One of the most important factors of successful leadership is the ability to communicate effectively, both with team members and other leaders.

Communication is a particular challenge in remote or hybrid working environments, but the personality traits underlying effective communication remain the same.

Generally speaking, effective communication is associated with Openness to Experience in The Big Five Model. If a leader scores highly on openness, they’re more likely to feel at ease in their leadership position, allowing them to communicate more openly and effectively with their team, even during tough times.

An effective communicator as a leader is more likely to earn the respect of their team, by being able to engage in conversations, tackle tough things, and think about creative solutions to problems being faced. A more engaged team means a more productive and impactful workforce – which means more business success!

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (which we measure using the EQ-i 2.0 assessment)  is one of our favourite things to use in leadership development – because it covers so many soft skills that a) are incredibly impactful in the workplace, and b) often get forgotten about in the desire to focus on hard skills and make data-driven decisions.

But emotional intelligence does really matter when it comes to leadership. Particularly in the modern workplace, where talent is in high demand and businesses have to find some sort of competitive edge in their industry, empathy is a vital skill.

Being an empathetic leader means that you’re able to relate easily to the situations around you. Instead of thinking your way is the right (and only) way, an empathetic leader will be able to see the situation from multiple perspectives and reach a conclusion that supports everyone’s needs. A team led by an empathetic leader will likely feel understood, heard and supported, even when tough decisions are being made.

If you’re new to emotional intelligence, we’ve got just the thing… ‘What is emotional intelligence and how does it help at work?’

Stress management

Being a leader can be incredibly stressful, that much is clear. And that fact is unlikely to change anytime soon.

But what really matters is how a leader responds to that stress – and that can be accurately predicted by personality traits. Being able to handle stressful situations is a soft skill, but one that has associations with a few Big Five factors of personality.

For example, an individual scoring highly on the Neuroticism factor might struggle to handle stress, because their reactions and responses are more likely to be based on negative emotions and they’re also more likely to experience emotions more intensely. 

Individuals scoring highly on the Conscientiousness scale are more likely to manage their reactions more effectively, as they may be hyper-focused on maintaining a positive reputation and hitting targets and goals without derailing.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum, individuals scoring highly on Agreeableness are likely to be so keen to keep the peace that they might go out of their way to actively avoid confrontations that arise from stressful situations – even when necessary.

When leaders are able to manage their stress more effectively, team members are able to mirror their calm reactions to stressful events, instead of feeling the need to walk on egg shells as they aren’t sure when the next emotional outburst may be.

Resilience

Resilience, or bounce-back-ability, is a leadership trait that has grown in popularity over the last few years. Particularly during the pandemic and the near-constant adaptations we all had to make to our work and personal lives, the ability to remain steady and not get overwhelmed or blown off course by change has become vital.

For leaders, being resilient means being able to take on challenges, adapt, be creative in finding solutions, and keep a steady course during turbulence. While there are many measures of resilience specifically out there (we use the Workplace Resilience And Wellbeing (WRAW) assessment), resilience is generally associated with low levels of Neuroticism and higher levels on the remaining four personality factors.

Being resilient means being adaptable, and that adaptability serves business incredibly well in challenging times. Leaders without resilience are likely to struggle with change, find it difficult to adapt, and take longer than necessary to get back on track after a setback.

Are there any personality traits that indicate bad leadership?

Now that we know the signs of a good leader, are there any personality traits that indicate poor leadership?

It turns out, the answer is yes. In large part, the red flags are the opposite end of the green flag scales – but it’s helpful to identify the specific impacts of those traits so that blind spots can be focused on during leadership development training and coaching.

Low emotional intelligence

Just like highly emotionally intelligent individuals are more likely to make successful leaders, individuals with low emotional intelligence are sometimes a cause for concern.

With low emotional intelligence, it’s likely that a leader will struggle with empathy, communication and maintaining a level head in negative situations. When a leader displays their lack of emotional intelligence in a team situation, team members are likely to feel disconnected from their leader and potentially disengaged from the company as a whole.

Poor stress management

If an individual, due to lack of emotional intelligence, is unable to manage stress well, they may not be suited to a leadership role.

Leadership not only involves managing your own stress, but also taking on board the stresses of team members too – if an individual with poor stress management is in that leadership role, they’re more likely to display irrational and volatile behaviour in those stressful situations, reacting from a place of emotion rather than logic.

Team members being led by an individual with poor stress management skills are likely to act reserved and withdrawn, out of fear of volatile reprisals.

High Neuroticism

Scoring highly on the Neuroticism scale of the Big Five personality factors is associated with experiencing negative emotions strongly. Leaders who score highly on the Neuroticism factor may be overly sceptical, reluctant to change, and experience high levels of anxiety during any period of unease or upheaval.

These leaders might also find it difficult to regulate their moods, because they’re experiencing a myriad of strong emotions internally. They may have reduced capacity for resilience, meaning that it takes longer than usual to recover after setbacks.

Low Openness to Experience

Finally, scoring on the low end of the Openness to Experience factor is likely to make it even more difficult to manage periods of change. Leaders with this personality trait will find it challenging to manage organisational change and would prefer to maintain the status quo.

With a personal preference for avoiding change, leaders who are tasked with transformational or change-based tasks within their teams may struggle to encourage team members to accept necessary changes. Leaders are likely to be resistant to new ideas, particularly those brought to them by team members, and are likely to create an environment where creativity feels stifled.

Can leadership traits be developed?

If leadership effectiveness can be indicated by personality traits, as we’ve seen here, is effectiveness set in stone? Or can it be developed through coaching or leadership development support?

This question goes back to the ongoing debate in psychology about whether personality is changeable or not. For those that believe personality is determined by nurture alone (i.e. genetics), personality is fixed from birth and not subject to change during an individual’s lifetime. But for those that believe personality is determined by nature and nurture, an individual’s environment, experiences and knowledge all have an impact on personality.

What is certain is that there is a huge ROI to be found in programmes that develop leadership skills. Particularly when those programmes focus on soft skills like emotional intelligence, leadership development has been seen to transform leadership practices within a business. While it’s difficult to calculate a specific monetary ROI, it is possible to see that developing positive traits in leaders will help teams to perform better, be more engaged, reduce staff turnover and generally make the business more likely to be successful and profitable.

In our experience at KinchLyons, 1:1 coaching and development sessions with leaders helps to maximise their existing strengths and mitigate the impact of blind spots – which helps to facilitate better relationships with team members and has a tangible positive impact on the wellbeing of the entire team.

Outside of personality and psychology, there are clearly many areas of leadership where specific skills are needed – and these skills can be taught and developed over time. It’s important for businesses to consider the impact of combining personality-based coaching with skills-based teaching, so that leaders are developed in a well-rounded way.

So, what have we learned about the personality traits of successful leaders?

Quite simply, we’ve learned a LOT. We’ve seen that there are clear green and red flags when it comes to personality traits and leadership potential – but what we’ve also seen is that personality is a complex topic.

What’s important to note is that identification of potential leaders should never be based solely on the results of personality assessments. Combining those assessments with interviews, analysis of past performance and cultural fit can help to identify leaders who are likely to be successful – but just personality tests alone only give you one element of that person’s likelihood to succeed.

There’s no ‘template’ for a perfect leader, but by understanding the personality traits that contribute to effective leadership we’re better able to support future leaders through developing their positive traits and mitigating any negative ones. Through leadership development coaching, using personality traits as a foundation, we’re able to help businesses to strengthen their leadership team and make organisation-wide improvements to employee engagement.

To find out more about our leadership development coaching, visit our Talent Services page or drop us a line for a chat!