Personality and Leadership
KeywordsEthical Leadership Transformational Leadership Leadership Style Leadership Behavior Leadership Effectiveness
What makes a good leader? The trait perspective of leadership captures the idea that leadership depends on individual characteristics of the leader. The goal of the trait perspective is to identify characteristics that effective leaders possess. In other words, this perspective asks the question “who are good leaders?” with the notion that this may be an inherent quality of certain individuals. Once identified, these individual characteristics can be useful for many purposes, such as for selecting future leaders. Though many personal characteristics have been examined to date, such as physical height, appearance, and intelligence, personality has traditionally been a primary focus of interest. Since the 1900s, researchers have examined how personality traits are related to leadership. Though there are many different approaches to conceptualizing leadership, this chapter will focus on the role of personality in relation to two primary outcomes of leadership: leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. In addition, we examine more recent research that has focused on how personality predicts specific leadership styles and behaviors, such as transformational, transactional, charismatic, ethical, task-oriented, and supportive leadership. We begin with the association between personality and leadership emergence and effectiveness.
Personality and Leadership Emergence and Effectiveness
At a broad level, much of the leadership research has focused on the extent to which personality may influence the degree to which an individual will emerge as a leader of a group (leadership emergence), as well as the degree to which one will be successful in a leadership role by influencing his or her followers toward achieving their goals (leadership effectiveness).
Early investigations into the relationship between personality and leadership emergence and effectiveness did not initially yield definitive findings. This was mostly due to the lack of a unifying personality taxonomy. The five-factor model (FFM) provided a framework to better study the effects of personality on leadership. Of these traits, three have been most consistently associated with leadership emergence and effectiveness over a multitude of studies: extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness to experience (Bono & Judge, 2004; Judge et al. 2002). We expand on these below.
Extraversion refers to the tendency to be sociable and energetic and has been found to positively relate to both leader emergence and leader effectiveness. This makes intuitive sense, as those who are higher on extraversion tend to be more sociable and willing to assert themselves in a group setting, which are traits that are typically related to one’s image of a leader. Furthermore, several studies have found that extraverted individuals are more likely to be perceived as leaders due to their high energy level and sociability. These characteristics therefore elicit others to view an individual as a leader or have them take on the leadership position. Those high in extraversion may also be able to engage in leadership behaviors more effectively, such as asserting themselves in a confident manner when making difficult decisions. However, it appears that extraversion is more strongly related to leadership emergence than leadership effectiveness. In other words, extraversion provides better prediction of whether someone will emerge as a leader in a group than if he or she will engage in effective leadership behaviors.
Conscientiousness refers to the tendency to be organized, diligent, and persistent. As conscientiousness is one of the most robust trait predictors of job performance, it is not surprising that conscientiousness is positively related to leadership emergence and effectiveness. The ability to organize and delegate tasks may lead a conscientious individual to emerge as a leader, as others look to them for direction and guidance (behaviors that align with a critical class of leadership behaviors called “initiating structure behaviors”). Other research has found that the achievement-striving tendency of those high in conscientiousness may also influence these individuals to take on a leadership role. Similar to extraversion, though conscientiousness has generally been found to influence both emergence and effectiveness, it seems to be related more substantively to leader emergence.
Openness to experience refers to the tendency to be intellectually curious and open to learning new things. Though openness has been found to be a strong predictor of leader emergence and effectiveness, the relationship is not very well understood. Individuals high on openness may be better at the problem-solving aspects of leadership, resulting in a relationship to leadership effectiveness. Those who are high in openness tend to also have a vivid imagination and thus may be better able to visualize future goals for their followers, a critical component of transformational leadership, as discussed below. Furthermore, due to their heighted curiosity, leaders high in openness may be able to challenge conventional methods and inspire followers to be motivated toward their tasks (Judge et al. 2009). However, more research is needed to understand this relationship as openness is a personality trait that is still not completely understood.
In the meta-analysis by Judge and colleagues (2002) agreeableness and neuroticism were not related to leadership emergence or effectiveness. Agreeableness refers to the tendency to be altruistic, cooperative, and kind. In a group environment, agreeableness may not influence the propensity to volunteer to take on the leadership role. Similarly, theoretically agreeableness may not have a straightforward and linear association with leadership effectiveness. Individuals high in agreeableness may not be effective in making hard decisions required for leadership effectiveness. In contrast, those low in agreeableness may also not be effective in displaying concern and providing support to their followers. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that agreeableness is not consistently associated with leadership criteria.
Neuroticism refers to the tendency to have negative emotions, such as anxiety. Though neuroticism was not found to influence leadership emergence or effectiveness in the meta-analysis (Judge et al. 2002) when other personality traits were taken into consideration, other research has found that neuroticism is negatively related to leadership effectiveness. One possible explanation for this relationship is that those high in neuroticism tend to be more anxious and display more negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, which impedes the leader’s ability to engage in constructive leadership behaviors.
Overall, it appears that the FFM explains a substantive amount of variance in both leadership emergence and effectiveness. Although numbers vary across study, the Judge et al. (2002) meta-analysis notes that 28% of the variance in leadership emergence and 15% of the variance in leadership effectiveness can be accounted for by the FFM.
Other traits outside of the FFM have also been investigated in relation to leadership emergence and effectiveness. Of these traits, self-monitoring has been shown to have some predictive utility. Self-monitoring refers to the tendency to be sensitive to social cues, consider the appropriateness of the social situation, and adjust behavior in different situations. Those high in self-monitoring are better able to observe social cues and adjust their behavior accordingly. Therefore, those who are better at attuning to emotional cues from their followers and attending to their needs may be more effective leaders. Moreover those who are higher on self-monitoring may be better at tailoring their presentation of information to different followers. For example, a leader may be able to frame the presentation of a decision, such as having to lay off employees, in a way that will lead to more follower acceptance and understanding. Indeed, research has found that self-monitoring is related positively to both leadership emergence and effectiveness.
Personality and Leadership Styles
Recently, research has moved away from only examining personality in terms of predicting outcomes such as leadership emergence and effectiveness and toward examining how personality influences the styles of leadership that a leader engages in. Here, we discuss personality in relation to several of these, including transformational, transactional, ethical, charismatic, supportive, and task-oriented leadership.
Transactional and Transformational Leadership
Transactional leadership refers to behaviors that motivate followers through rewards and punishment, whereas transformational leadership refers to behaviors that provide a purpose to followers to transcend short-term personal goals and focus on a higher-order goal. Transactional leaders may actively reward followers for their positive performance (contingent reward) or they may intervene only when followers are not meeting acceptable performance levels (management by exception). Transformational leaders may influence followers through modeling moral conduct (idealized influence), providing a strong vision for followers to work toward (inspirational motivation), challenging followers to think innovatively (intellectual stimulation), and attending to the needs of each follower (individual consideration).
In a meta-analysis investigating the role of personality in predicting the use of transformational and transactional leadership styles Deinert et al. (2015), the personality traits of extraversion and neuroticism were found to have the strongest associations with transformational leadership. More specifically, extraversion was positively related to three subdimensions of transformational leadership: charisma (inspirational motivation and idealized influence), intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. On the other hand, neuroticism was negatively related to these dimensions. This implies that extraversion may be an important trait to examine in predicting transformational leadership behaviors. More specifically, it appears that those who are higher in extraversion may engage in more consideration behaviors such as talking to their followers and trying to understand their needs and using charisma to motivate their followers. This is likely due to their heightened tendency to be socially bold and seek out social interaction. In contrast, it appears that those high in neuroticism are less likely to engage in these behaviors. As transformational leadership behaviors have been found to be one of the most effective styles in positively influencing followers, extraversion and neuroticism may be important traits to consider when selecting potential leaders.
Transactional leadership was most closely associated with extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. More specifically, extraversion and agreeableness were positively related to contingent rewards, whereas neuroticism was negatively related to this leadership style. This may be due to the tendency of those high in extraversion and agreeableness to be attuned to cues of other’s needs and provide rewards for tasks or goals that are completed. On the whole, transformational and transactional leadership (specifically the “contingent reward” component) are important leadership styles that contribute to effectiveness and further elucidate why traits such as extraversion and (low) neuroticism may be important for effective leadership.
Beyond transformational and transactional leadership, the leadership literature describes several other leadership styles and behaviors. Though there are some overlapping constructs between these leadership styles, each of these styles is focused on distinct goals. These other leadership styles include ethical, charismatic, supportive, and task-oriented leadership styles. A recent study by Reinout De Vries (2012) investigated the role of the HEXACO model of personality and its influence on these four leadership styles (refer to HEXACO model entry).
In terms of ethical leadership, the primary personality correlate seems to be honesty-humility (a unique component of the HEXACO model). Ethical leadership refers to behaviors that emphasize ethical decision-making and role modeling ethical behavior to followers. Ethical leaders use moral management to help guide and motivate followers to attain their goals in a moral way, and so it is not surprising that honesty-humility, with its emphasis on individual differences related to fairness and sincerity, is positively related to ethical leadership.
Charismatic leadership refers to behaviors that provide a clear mission and inspire and influence followers toward attaining that mission. Charismatic leaders are energetic and socially confident, enabling them to influence followers. As extraversion has been found to be related to perceptions of leadership and warmth, it is intuitive that extraversion is related to charismatic leadership. This is also consistent with the positive relationship between extraversion and transformational leadership, given that charisma is a key component of transformational leadership.
Supportive leadership refers to leadership behaviors that involve showing concern for the welfare of others and a willingness to share power with one’s followers. Supportive leaders show interpersonal warmth and make followers feel at ease. Agreeableness has been found to be significantly associated with increased supportive leadership. Agreeableness involves willingness to cooperate and compromise with individuals, which may facilitate supportive leadership behaviors such as sharing power with their followers. Furthermore, individuals low in agreeableness tend to be more likely to engage in more “non-supportive” leadership behaviors, such as criticizing subordinates and being unwilling to relinquish power over one’s followers.
Finally, task-oriented leadership refers to behaviors that organize and clarify followers’ roles. This involves defining the tasks that need to be completed, maintaining the standard of work, and following up with each subordinate to ensure that goals are being met. Conscientiousness has been found to be positively related to task-oriented leadership.
Dark Personality and Leadership
During the past decade, researchers have become more interested in the role of “dark” personality traits in predicting leadership (Grijalva et al. 2015). Among these, narcissism has typically received the most attention. Narcissism typically involves an inflated sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, tendency to be manipulative, and a grandiose sense of self-importance. Though narcissism is related to a multitude of negative workplace behaviors, including abusive supervision, studies have found that narcissism may also have some positive effects. Specifically, in a recent meta-analysis, narcissism was positively related to leadership emergence and effectiveness. Narcissism appears to have an influence on leadership emergence through its association with increased levels of extraversion. It appears that individuals high in narcissism may tend to emerge as leaders through their extraverted tendencies. Narcissism was found to have a positive relation to leadership effectiveness, but only when the effectiveness was self-reported, suggesting that though a leader believes himself or herself is more effective, the leader’s followers may not. To further clarify this effect, a study investigated the positive (egotism and self-esteem) and negative (manipulativeness and impression management) sides of the narcissism trait Paunonen et al. (2006). It was found that leaders that received the highest leadership ratings were high in egotism and self-esteem but low in manipulativeness and impression management. This suggests that it is the elevated confidence that reflects positively to followers, while the manipulative nature of narcissism is perceived negatively by followers. This is consistent with findings on the HEXACO model of personality’s dimension of honesty-humility, a trait which is correlated quite strongly with the Dark Triad traits, including narcissism, and captures these manipulative, insincere tendencies. Preliminary findings show that honesty-humility has an indirect, positive relationship with other rated leadership emergence, such that individuals low in honesty-humility were less likely to emerge as leaders, through their propensity to morally disengage. Nonetheless, it appears that dark personality traits have an important role to play in understanding leadership.
Overall, it appears that personality traits are associated with leadership emergence, effectiveness, and the style of leadership an individual engages in. Future research could investigate the influence of more narrow personality traits on leadership. Narrow traits have been found to offer more insight and predictability when predicting more narrow outcomes, such as a specific facet of transformational leadership. Furthermore, researchers could examine possible moderators for the personality to leadership link. For example, recently some have examined the method of measuring personality (self-report or other-report) as a moderator of this relationship. Finally, though there have been many developments in research examining personality and leadership, there is a need for further exploration of the role of personality beyond the Big Five or FFM traits, including dark personality traits and honesty-humility.
- Bono, J. E., Shen, W., & Yoon, D. J. (2014). Personality and leadership: Looking back, looking ahead. In D. Day (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of leadership and organizations (pp. 199–217).Google Scholar