The “Leadership Personality,” Part 2

An interesting piece of feedback arrived after my last blog, The “Leadership Personality.” A correspondent felt that my view was a “bit too relativistic,” that “prosocial, humble, and honest are better than narcissistic and disagreeable in my book- even if their financial results are better.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more, and the reader may have viewed my post as out of context with what I’ve written before. It raises some questions that should be addressed, however. 

My view that adaptability is perhaps the foundational personality quality of leadership success is, I think, still valid and does not assume that any behavior is acceptable as long as you get short-term results. Adaptability is a long-term strategy, by which I mean that a leader should be adapting to their environment in ways that will work over the long term, not just in the moment. A leader can browbeat subordinates into submission and get better financial results over the short-term, but he or she will quickly lose effectiveness by demotivating the workforce and driving away the good people who can get jobs elsewhere. Some qualities do work better over the long-term, and are thus more adaptive; others may work work well in the short-term but be less adaptive.


So what personality qualities should a leader strive for in order to be more successful? Here are a few:

  • Honesty and integrity are critical; if a leader is dishonest they will lose followers quickly.
  • Prosociality is voluntarily acting in ways that benefit others. Leaders who look for the good of the group will be followed more than those who only focus on their own interests.
  • Humility. A synonym for humility is “down-to-earth,” and I think good leaders exemplify this quality. Not only are they approachable and human, they are realistic in their assessment of themselves (meaning that self-awareness should be part of this list). A realistic view of oneself will ensure that a leader sees that there is always room for improvement, that they will always have weaknesses and flaws, that they need others in order to be successful. They will see that arrogance is nonadaptive in the long run.
  • Confidence. Confidence must also be based on realism. If one has a track record of success in a given area, one should feel confident that they can continue to be successful. Reality-based confidence in oneself inspires others to follow.
  • Inhibition mixed with power drive. I agree with David McClelland* that the best leaders seem to have a high need for power combined with high inhibition. They want to have an impact on the world, but they do so for the benefit of the whole rather than themselves alone.
  • A drive for results. Without results one does not stay a leader very long.
  • Openness to experience. Without a willingness to expand, experiment, and learn it will be impossible to adapt to the changing of the environment.

Again, the qualities that go into what it takes to be a good leader are many, and often circumstance driven. Some of those qualities are non-negotiable and this list, though incomplete, is a good place to start.


*See McClelland and Burnam’s Harvard Business Review article “Power is the Great Motivator” or McClelland’s book, “Power: The Inner Experience.”

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