Instinctual Leadership (2)

Mario Sikora
Oct 19, 2019

Each of us is wired with instinctual drives that shape what we value and what aspects of life we focus on. These drives have been wired into us through millions of years of evolutionary pressures and they enhance our ability to survive and reproduce. Understanding how these instinctual drives influence our work lives has a transformative effect.

These drives can be thought of as fitting into three distinct domains—Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting—and while we each exhibit behaviors related to all three domains, we tend to have a non-conscious bias toward one of them. Some of us focus more on Preserving, some on Navigating, and some on Transmitting. This focus can be the source of our greatest strengths and our most significant blind spots

“Instinctual Leadership” is a way of understanding how these instinctual drives affect our work lives—the way we work, the way we lead, and the way we function in teams—and leveraging that understanding for positive change. It combines a model of the three instinctual biases with a model of nine strategies for satisfying the values and addressing the issues our biases compel us toward.

This combination of instinctual biases and strategies is a specific approach to the Enneagram model of personality styles. The article will focus on the three instinctual biases, but the table below lists the nine strategies as a reminder for those already familiar with the Enneagram system. For others, more on the strategies can be found here and an overview of the Enneagram in general can be found here.

The Nine Ennea-Types
Ennea-Type:Preferred Strategy:
OneStriving to be Perfect
TwoStriving to be Connected
ThreeStriving to be Outstanding
FourStriving to be Unique
FiveStriving to be Detached
SixStriving to be Secure
SevenStriving to be Excited
EightStriving to be Powerful
NineStriving to be Peaceful
The Three Instinctual Domains

The Preserving domain is a group of instinctual impulses that relates to nesting and nurturing needs. They are inclinations to ensure we have the resources we need to survive, to ensure that we are safe and secure, to ensure shelter and comfort. In addition to these fundamental “self”-preservation needs, however, this domain also includes preservation of artifacts, traditions, our offspring, and those people we hold dear. It is an innate desire to ensure not only that we survive, but that those who carry our genes survive and prosper, and that we have the resources necessary to ensure that survival.

The instinctual drives in the Navigating domain help us navigate or orient to the group. They help us understand group dynamics, social status, and cultural mores and they equip us with skills that enable us to know who we can trust and develop reciprocal relationships with. As social creatures we need to understand how the group works and how to be accepted into it. We have to gather information about others but only reveal enough about ourselves to maintain a favorable reputation. We need to know who is in “the tribe” and who is not, and how we can ensure we remain a part of the social security network. The navigating behaviors help us do that.

The Transmitting domain of instinctual drives enhances the likelihood that we will attract the attention of others and it equips us to demonstrate the value of our ideas, values, creations, or genes. This domain is about attention and intensity; it is about display and enticement. Commonly thought of as being focused on one-to-one relationships, it is more accurate to say that this group of instinctual behaviors enhances our ability to make sure some part of ourselves passes on to the next generation.

It can be helpful to see the instinctual biases as an independent, but limited, typology. For example, people who are Preserving types will share some characteristics with other people who are Preserving types regardless of their Enneagram type. But, as with the Ennea-types, we must be careful about oversimplifying human nature and making too many assumptions about how the instinctual behaviors will manifest in any given individual. Some Preservers take a minimalist approach to maintaining resources, keeping on hand only what they need, while others will warehouse an overabundance of resources. What they share is an instinctual focus on preservation, even if they manifest those instincts in different ways.

Further, people often contradict themselves in the instinctual domains; Preservers will pinch pennies one moment but extravagantly indulge their desires the next.

This is probably due to two factors:

  • The modular nature of the brain—different mechanisms have evolved over time that support the same need but do so in conflicting ways; both conservation of resources and indulgence support one’s well-being under different circumstances.
  • The fact that we have evolved to both compete and cooperate; frequently with the same people at the same time. We have to compete AND cooperate with family members, team members, vendors, and—sometimes—even competitors, and we put the instinctual behaviors to use in doing so.

These contradictions can be confusing, but if we understand the root of the conflicts and that they ultimately serve the same end, they become easier to work with.

Finally, when it comes to drawing distinctions within the instinctual domains, it helps to remember that different Ennea-types will express the instinctual biases differently. For example, while a Transmitting Nine and a Transmitting Eight will share some fundamental values (namely, a desire to “transmit”), their different adaptive strategies will cause them to satisfy their values in different ways. A Transmitting Nine and a Transmitting Eight may look similar in some behaviors and attitudes but they will be very different in others. The same applies to other Ennea-types as well; people will have similarities when they share a strategy and instinctual bias, but behave differently where strategy and instinctual bias differences exist.


Our character expresses itself in all areas of our life, and how we lead is often an outcome of who we are. Our leadership style can’t help but be influenced by our Ennea-type—Eights tend to be more directive leaders while Nines tend to be more consensus-building in their approach, for example—and our instinctual bias shapes our leadership as well.

The scope of this article does not allow us to go into great depth, but the following are some observations I’ve made over nearly two decades of working with leaders. I want to emphasize again that the Enneagram should not be used as a predictive model; it should be used as a remedial model or a model to make one aware of probabilities. When I work with a client, I can’t assume that because they are a Navigating type they will definitely exhibit a particular behavior, but I can use the model to help me watch out for particular tendencies and as a guide for helping the client change ineffective behavior.

I have also observed that there is a particular pattern related to the expression of the instinctual biases that affects leadership. It seems that one domain is dominant and often “over-attended to;” one domain is paid some attention but often in a conflicted way; and one domain is relatively ignored until circumstances force our attention to it. My observation has been that the expression of the domain-related behaviors tends to be consistent so if you know which domain is dominant you will know which one is secondary and which is tertiary. The ordering of expression seems to be in the following patterns:

  • Preserving dominant—Navigating secondary—Transmitting tertiary.
  • Navigating dominant—Transmitting secondary—Preserving tertiary.
  • Transmitting dominant—Preserving secondary—Navigating tertiary.

Understanding this pattern can be very useful because it tells us not only where a client may be over-using their instinctual behaviors, but also what important instinctual behaviors are probably being neglected. For example, if a leader is a Preserving type there is a very good chance that he or she is not only overly focused on preserving behaviors but that he or she is probably neglecting the necessary transmitting behaviors of leadership and conflicted in the navigating domain.

Preserving Leaders:

The Preserving domain of instinctual behaviors is related to the preservation of resources and the well-being of oneself and the people in the proverbial nest. Those people may well include co-workers and subordinates, and Preservers often spend a lot of time thinking about their own security and the security of those for whom they are responsible. Note that they may not be effective at ensuring that security, but it will be a disproportionate concern for them. I have known Preserving types who fixate on having enough of the things they need but still being reckless with their finances in ways that undermine their security; others who focus so much on preserving their resources that they are too stingy in the appropriate use of those resources. The commonality is the amount of time and energy spent focused on preserving-related issues even if they express the focus via different behaviors.

Therefore, I will write about what each instinctual type is “drawn to”—i.e., where their attention and focus goes—with the acknowledgement that they may not be effective at actually doing those things or even find pleasure in doing them.

Preserving-type leaders tend to be drawn to the fundamental, “nuts and bolts” issues related to business and organizations. They tend to be more cautious and conservative, and more risk-averse in general. They tend to want to ensure that administrative issues are in order and that procedures are being followed. They can be circumspect and cautious about change and new ways of doing things, and they often like to be the Devil’s Advocate who challenges new ideas. They often prefer tradition to experimentation, but they can also bring strong process focus to an effort and drive deliberate change through disciplined execution. These tendencies can make them good leaders for organizations that need stability and order. The downside is that they can be too resistant to change, conservative, and tradition-bound and may struggle in a fast-changing environment where the objective is not clearly defined.

Navigating Leaders:

The Navigating domain of instinctual concerns is related to issues of trust, reciprocity, and identity within the group. These behaviors help us know what our status is within the hierarchy, how to build collaborative relationships with others, and how to navigate the politics of the group. Navigating types are generally interested in the exchange of information—seeking insights about people and sharing gossip. They want to track the actions of those within the group, thus they like to be around people even if they don’t engage with others. They are sociable, but also somewhat guarded—revealing enough to be accepted but not so much that they will be rejected. At times, they may come across to others as gossipy, overly political or position-conscious, and not taking a clear stand on an issue.

Navigating leaders are drawn to issues related to group dynamics and interpersonal communication. They track group cohesion and status changes; they tend to be attuned to organizational politics, intuitively knowing which levers to pull in order to move projects around obstacles. They are able to instinctively read the pulse of the group, assess morale, and know who needs to be pushed, who needs to be nurtured, and who the influencers are. They tend to be good at identify the needs of the various constituencies in the organization and finding ways to satisfy them. Navigating leaders tend to be good in the “forming” stage of team dynamics, where the group is finding its identity and ways of working together. They may, however, become too focused on the political dynamics of the group and spend more time on the politics than on the organization’s ultimate business goals.

Transmitting Leaders:

The Transmitting domain of instincts is related to displaying the desirability of the individual and his or her ideas or creations. These instinctual behaviors help us attract the attention of others, seduce them into seeing our desirability or the desirability of our creations. Transmitters know how to stand out and draw attention, to charm and cajole, to create an intense connection that induces the other to be open to what the Transmitter has to offer. Transmitters tend to be engaging and intuitively understand how to entice others into their orbit. They are typically ambitious and apparently self-confident, and they can be willing to take risks to get what they want.

Transmitting leaders are often charismatic and bold. They are often good at articulating a goal or vision and moving others toward it, seducing some and driving others as necessary. They often intuitively understand the mind of the market and the customer and are persuasive sellers of the product, company, or dream. They can be competitive and are often the alpha males and females of the group. Transmitting leaders tend to be good in the start-up phase of a business when the organization needs an inspiring vision to rally around. On the downside, the transmitting behaviors can cause these leaders to focus too much on themselves, their accomplishments, and their desirable qualities, making them seem overly self-centered.

Secondary and Tertiary Domains:

Because of the predictable order of the instincts, we also have clues for what to look for regarding the leader’s secondary and tertiary instinctual domains.

Preserving leaders, for example, often neglect the leadership behaviors related to their third instinctual domain—those very leadership capabilities that are typically the strengths of the Transmitting leaders. They tend to be understated and conservative, focused on process to the neglect of inspiration. They may neglect the “selling” component of leadership, failing to focus enough on marketing and sales or the selling of the vision. They are often ambivalent and conflicted about the needs addressed by the Navigating domain—they have some tolerance for the organizational politics but see it as a diversion from more-important tasks; they may understand the value of “management by walking around” or talking with people to gauge the emotional temperature of the team but they frequently find reasons to neglect doing so.

Navigating leaders frequently neglect those activities addressed by their tertiary instinctual domain—the Preserving behaviors. They may fail to appropriately value or follow process, overlook threats to the company’s competitive position, and ignore details that could be the signs of bigger problems. As in Aesop’s fable, they can be the grasshopper who wants to chat and enjoy the sunshine with the ant rather than the preserving ant who is preparing for the winter. They are often conflicted in the leadership behaviors of the Transmitting domain. They may want to shine, but are hesitant to draw too much attention to their gifts; they may want to drive a vision, but worry too much about the political impacts of doing so.

Transmitting leaders, though seeming outgoing and “social,” typically neglect the leadership duties supported by the Navigating behaviors. They have little time for gossip or organizational politics beyond what it takes to advance their agenda. Their social interactions are usually transactional and have a definite purpose—to charm and sell their ideas when necessary—but they are not usually great listeners and quickly grow weary of social small talk. They are conflicted in the Preserving domain—they want to accumulate the resources necessary to meet their goals and they want to be comfortable and pampered, but they can be reckless—sometimes reaching for the whole pie rather than only the amount they need. They may forget to be appropriately conservative when conservatism is called for.

Again, it is important to point out that while these descriptions are useful, they point to broad tendencies and there are many subtleties that can be addressed if we were to look at the 27 subtypes, which are the result of the interaction of the three instinctual biases and the nine strategies. A Navigating One may be more detail-oriented than a Navigating Nine, for example, but they are not nearly as detail-oriented as a Preserving One or even a Preserving Three. Transmitting Fives aren’t typically as charismatic and outgoing as Transmitting Sevens, but they can be more extroverted and energetic than many Preserving Nines or Preserving Fours.

In conclusion, we have to be careful when making assumptions about broad groups of people, whether we are looking only at the three instinctual biases or the nine Ennea-types. However, it is clear that accurately identifying a leader’s instinctual bias can help him or her develop important and vivid insights into their nature and the nature of their leadership. Combining this with an understanding of each Ennea-type’s strategy makes the value even greater. It is my hope that leaders and those that work with them can use this article as a starting pointing point for further exploration and growth.

Recent Posts

Developing General Knowledge: Overcoming Ignorance

Part of an ongoing series of articles on clear-thinking skills, excerpted from “How to Think Well, and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking” by Mario Sikora (available at Last time we discussed ignorance; below are some...

Why We See What We Expect to See: Confirmation Bias and the Enneagram

By Mario Sikora The voice came from behind me in a moment of downtime after an exercise during the training. “So, Mario, have you identified your subtype?” I turned around to see Don Riso standing a few feet away. “Yes, I’m a self-pres Eight.” “No you’re not. You’re...