Two Personality Traits Predict Future Leaders
Leaders undergo personality change in preparation for and during their careers.
Posted May 27, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Compared to others, leaders-to-be are more extraverted, open, stable, conscientious, trusting, risk-taking, and more likely to feel in control.
- When preparing for their role, future leaders seem to gradually feel more in control and become more open, extraverted, and risk-taking.
- After being promoted into a leadership position, leaders-to-be become less extroverted, risk-taking, and conscientious, but more self-confident.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality, Asselmann and colleagues investigated how leaders-to-be compare with non-leaders, in addition to how they change before and during their tenure.
They found, “leaders-to-be were more extraverted, open, emotionally stable, conscientious, and willing to take risks; felt to have greater control; and trusted others more than non-leaders.”
Plus, “while approaching a leadership position, leaders-to-be (especially men) became gradually more extraverted, open, and willing to take risks and felt also to have more control over their life.” However, “after becoming a leader, they became less extraverted, less willing to take risks, and less conscientious, but gained self-esteem.”
The study is summarized below.
Investigating leadership development
Sample: N = 33,663. The data came from the Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP)—a German, nationally representative household panel study started in 1984.
- Leadership: The International Standard Classification of Occupations from 1988 (ISCO-88)
- Personality: BFI-S, a short version of the Big Five Inventory
- Perceived control: Seven items (e.g., “I have little control over the things that happen in my life.”)
- Self-esteem: Single item (“I have a positive attitude toward myself.”)
- Risk willingness: One question (“How do you see yourself: Are you generally a person who is very willing to take risks or do you try to avoid taking risks?”)
- Trust: Three items (e.g., “On the whole, one can trust people.”)
- Tendency to forgive: Tendency to Forgive Scale (e.g., “I tend to bear grudges.”)
- Reciprocity: The Personal Norm of Reciprocity Questionnaire (e.g., “I go out of my way to help somebody who has been kind to me in the past.”)
Researchers compared 2,683 individuals appointed to leadership positions during the study with 30,980 who never were. Of the total (33,663), nearly 50% were women. Of leaders, 36% were women, and of non-leaders, about 51%.
The main findings are:
“Already before starting a leadership position, leaders were more extraverted, open, emotionally stable, conscientious, and willing to take risks; felt to have greater control; and trusted others more than non-leaders.”
However, emergent leaders also experienced personality change, becoming “more extraverted, open, and willing to take risks, and felt also to have more control while approaching a leadership position.” After being appointed a leader, “they became less extraverted, less willing to take risks, and less conscientious but gained self-esteem.”
Lastly, comparing leaders and non-leaders revealed major personality differences (in particular, being more open and extraverted) observable long before they were promoted to leadership positions.
The effects of personality and environment on leadership
Why are leaders more extraverted and open to experience than the average person?
Perhaps because open and extraverted people are more likely to enjoy directing others and to be successful at it, which increases their ambition for higher-up management positions and boosts their chances of being promoted.
Furthermore, those with leadership ambitions may choose the kinds of environments or roles and responsibilities (e.g., leading small projects, networking) that favor leadership traits. The behavioral changes resulting from directing projects or networking may, over time, contribute to higher self-confidence, extraversion, and open-mindedness.
After starting their position, the data showed, leaders maintained high levels of perceived control and openness, and even experienced a boost in self-esteem. However, extraversion, risk tolerance, and conscientiousness declined. Why?
Maybe because, as a result of greater job demands, leaders had less energy and time to socialize, so they became more introverted. Furthermore, a shift in focus from establishing to protecting their role resulted in reduced risk-willingness.
As for lower conscientiousness, the authors add, “leaders might often need to flexibly switch between different projects, delegate tasks, prioritize, and compromise. With increasing leadership experience, they might become more laid back, develop a higher fault tolerance.”
Gender and leadership
There were some gender differences in the findings. Though women are generally more agreeable than men, female leaders who had moved into a leadership position were less agreeable than non-leaders of the same sex. Why?
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Possibly because women feel, more than men do, the pressure to behave very differently subsequent to being promoted. After all, we commonly believe that leaders must be competitive, assertive, and occasionally even aggressive. But these are masculine stereotypes.
Results also showed that male leaders “felt to have greater control over their life than same-sex non-leaders after starting a leadership position,” likely because men “are perceived and evaluated more positively in leadership positions.” Consequently, they may experience greater perceived control.
In addition, only male leaders-to-be became gradually more extraverted before starting their position.
One explanation is that the stereotypical man and leader are both expected to be social and outgoing, which means that among leaders-to-be, men who become more extraverted are judged more favorably than are extraverted women.
Successful leadership has been associated with a variety of characteristics. The list is long: being ambitious, articulate, authentic, caring, diplomatic, educated, energetic, ethical, flexible, healthy, innovative, insightful, intelligent, open, optimistic, popular, responsible, self-confident, self-connected, social, trustworthy, wise....
How do leaders acquire these attributes?
Though leaders-to-be tend to show certain leadership traits (specifically openness and extroversion) long before being promoted, the above research shows nobody is a born leader.
In fact, most leaders-to-be undergo personality changes during preparation for their new role and later as they gain experience after their appointment.
Of course, not all the personality changes are permanent. For instance, increases in extraversion and risk-willingness are often temporary, returning to baseline levels after the person has been promoted. The increase in openness and perceived control, however, are more lasting.
What are the implications of the findings? For one, it is important to pay attention to certain personality traits, particularly high extraversion and openness to experience, in personnel selection.
In addition, personality change interventions may help encourage and support the development of traits linked to leadership emergence and success.