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Stark Disparity in Personality Traits Seen as Leaders Advance 
 

10/23/2012  By Roy Maurer 
 
 
 

New research pinpoints personality traits successful leaders must emphasize and de-emphasize as they progress in their careers.

Specifically, the PDI Ninth House Pulse on Leaders survey research found that certain traits that facilitate advancement to the business unit leader level actually inhibit progression to the CEO level.

PDI Ninth House, a global leadership solutions company, found that business unit leaders scored the highest in terms of displaying competitiveness and intimidating others, and the lowest in being considerate. CEOs scored highest in being considerate, displaying influence and taking charge, and were the least likely to intimidate others.

“In many ways, the research dispels the old cliché that nice guys finish last in business,” said Joy Hazucha, Ph.D., senior vice president, Leadership Research and Analytics for PDI Ninth House.

PDI Ninth House examined 37,398 leaders from 1,340 companies across 147 countries to compare personality traits among leadership levels, progressing in sequential order starting at first-level leaders and moving on to mid-level leaders, business unit leaders, senior executives and, ultimately, CEOs.

The research suggested that leaders who are competitive and intimidating but lack consideration may find success and advance up to a certain point. The research also showed, however, that those who progress to the top use influence rather than intimidation to direct in a positive way and temper their competitiveness. Consequently, leaders may find it difficult to advance to C-suite roles without shedding those personality traits that helped them get there.

“This research … can help HR focus on alleviating the effects of some traits that prohibit leaders from moving up,” Hazucha told SHRM Online.

Specifically, she said that HR may offer guidance on the following:

  • Moving from small picture to big picture.
  • Conflict resolution.
  • Influencing others in a positive way, through the heart and head, rather than intimidating or micro-managing.
  • Increasing engagement, which can lead to greater energy to accomplish tasks.

Personality Traits That Lead to Success

In comparing leaders at different points in the leadership pipeline, the research identified the top three traits successful leaders must increasingly emphasize as they progress in their career to the C-suite:

  • Influence over others, including regularly selling ideas and, in turn, gaining acceptance and prompting others to help carry out those ideas.
  • High energy levels to accommodate adequately the increase in time demands that occurs between ascending levels of leadership.
  • A take-charge approach, characterized by a more directive style of leadership that entails regularly delegating tasks and imposing action.

Ditch Those Derailing Behaviors

The traits that successful leaders must relinquish as they advance to the top:

  • Passive aggressiveness, which leaders can avoid by being direct about what they think, rather than going along to avoid conflict.
  • Micro-management, which leaders should avoid by focusing on managing outcomes, rather than the details along the way.
  • Manipulation, which is a tactic for trying to get others to take action by using a hidden agenda. Leaders should instead seek to lead by influence and be transparent about their goals, PDI said.
  • Attention to detail, which is a trait that should decrease as leaders gain a broader scope of responsibility and have to think in more strategic terms. This is difficult to do if leaders stay overly focused on details. They should assign others to attend to the details, PDI said.

“We found that successful leaders at the top were more likely to make decisions after consulting and working with others,” Hazucha said. “This spirit of teamwork played out among the most successful leaders, demonstrating that if an organization really wants to have sustainable results, leadership must display teamwork, engagement and provide adequate levels of support.”

The research can also serve as a cautionary tale for HR to share with developing leaders, she said. “Frequently, it’s simply assumed that the most competitive and driven will power their way to the top. But as the data indicated, that only works, really, up to a certain point, if it works at all. Beyond the level of business unit leaders in particular, it’s hard to continue to find success if you’re hard-charging and operate by intimidating others. HR should work with leaders to instead encourage competing externally instead of internally, or with others within the organization,” she said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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