- There is evidence that personality traits such as Extraversion, Emotional Stability, and Conscientiousness are positively related to leadership.
- Some personality traits may advantage individuals in leadership positions, but the relationships are complex.
There is a long history of examining the relationship of personality to leadership. In the early half of the 20th century, there was a great deal of interest in studying the personality traits associated with effective leadership. Yet by the 1960s this research was largely abandoned. The new century, however, has seen a revival in exploring the connections between personality and leadership.
Using the Big Five model of personality, what are the relationships between personality and leadership?
A 2002 meta-analysis looked across dozens of studies and determined that there were positive relationships between leadership and Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience — and a negative relationship between Neuroticism and leadership. The strongest link of these was between Extraversion and leadership. However, in one of our studies, we found that the connection did not hold up unless the individual also possessed good social and communication skills. This suggests that the driver of leadership is not necessarily just being extraverted, but controlling the trait with tactful communication. Moreover, more introverted persons who possessed good social skills were just as likely to be effective leaders; good news for introverts.
The negative relationship between Neuroticism and effective leadership makes sense because a good leader is emotionally stable – the opposite of neuroticism.
The relationship between Conscientiousness and leadership is more complex. Conscientious individuals tend to be good employees in general because they are systematic and careful in their work. They pay close attention to detail and feel an obligation to get things done. This may help when they are in leadership positions because they are thorough in their analysis of situations and when considering different courses of action. On the downside, being overly conscientious might cause leaders to spend too much time analyzing, which could paralyze them into inaction.
Openness to Experience is positively associated with leadership because it is associated with risk-taking, flexibility in terms of courses of action, inclusiveness, and being creative and innovative. Leaders high on Openness tend to bring others into the decision-making process and encourage information sharing, as well as welcoming dissenting viewpoints. As you can imagine, this trait is particularly important for leaders in organizations that value innovation, such as startup companies. On the other hand, leaders who are less open may perform well in routine organizations. In one study, successful leaders in the manufacturing and security sectors (e.g., police work, the military) tended to be lower in openness.
One thing to keep in mind is that the relationships between personality and leadership are complex, and personality is not destiny. Importantly, effective leadership involves the acquisition of complex skills in communication, management of relationships, and decision making. While personality traits might give one a slight advantage (think of extraverts being better communicators because they spend so much time interacting with others), it is really a fuller set of skills that drives good leadership.
Judge, T.A., Bono, J.E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M.W. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 765–780
Reichard, R.J., Riggio, R.E., Guerin, D.W., Oliver, P.H., Gottfried, A.W., & Gottfried, A.E. (2011). A prospective, longitudinal study of the relationship between adolescent personality and intelligence and adult leader emergence and transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), 471-481.