Frederick the Great of Prussia, J.H.C. Franke, c.1763
Ideas for Leaders #044

Five Traits of the Better Leader

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Key Concept

Becoming a good leader requires having to work hard on yourself, even if good leaders make it look easy. The same traits - or dimensions - that are traditionally considered essential for executives to grow can in fact become a hindrance for them. Executives should practice self-awareness, and learn to adapt when needed.

Idea Summary

How can leaders recognize and manage their psychological preferences and personality traits? This is the question the authors explore in this article. Interviewing over 2,000 international executives attending leadership programs at Duke University, London Business School and IMD, they identify the most common leadership pitfalls.

The authors found that even the most successful executives have had to work hard on themselves, and need to understand their natural inclinations in order to modify or compensate for them. In addition, executives need to recognize their outlier tendencies and learn how others perceive those tendencies.

The authors compare the common pitfalls they found against the ‘Big 5,’ which they describe as the five broad dimensions comprising a cluster of traits that have been identified by psychologists as distinguishing individuals from one another. These dimensions appear so robust that they have been dubbed the Big Five.

Highlighting each of the Big 5, the authors explain how the same traits that are generally considered necessary for good leadership can become detrimental - in other words, “too much of a good thing.” The objective, they say, is not to undergo a personality change, but to be yourself with more skill. Successful leaders have to work on themselves in order to manage potentially career-limiting traits.

Business Application

The authors highlight how the Big 5 traits can become a source of problems for executives, even if they are working for them right now:

  • Need for Stability: though emotional stability can be a valuable quality for executives, it has its drawbacks too. Being “too composed” may make you come across as unduly confident. On the other hand, those who struggle to deal with their anger may reflect a high need for stability, but may only be suppressing it rather than effectively dealing with it.
  • Extraversion: this reflects our desire to be with other people and to draw energy from them. The authors advise avoiding being too assertive or too energetic. For executives with a tendency to dominate proceedings, there is the “four sentence” rule: whatever you have to say, limit yourself to four sentences. Then ask: “do you want me to carry on?” Similarly, those that can be too introspective, they advise relaxing (and smiling), as both have been shown to have a physiological impact not only on the executive but also on colleagues, who tend to mirror the emotion.
  • Openness: this includes tendency to show intellectual curiosity, independence of judgment and big-picture orientation. However, these dimensions don’t necessarily help the leader connect with others. You can be too innovative or too complex, or you can be too conventional.
  • Agreeableness: this is a measure of the importance people place on getting along with others. Executives who score low on agreeableness provide edge and a results focus that is invaluable in business. As such, the authors warn against being too rational, competitive and watchful. Similarly, executives with a strong competitive streak can come across as ruthless, uncooperative or lacking in larger perspective. On the other hand, you can be too considerate; highly agreeable executives must ask themselves: “Why do I have this need to be liked?”
  • Conscientiousness: reflects the extent to which we want to structure and organize our lives. Drive, reliability and persistence are important qualities for leaders, but they can prove dysfunctional if they are not properly channelled. The authors warn against being too thorough or, on the other hand, making decisions too quickly.

The inevitable starting point, say the authors, is self-awareness, and executives must first understand where their natural inclinations lie in order to boost them or compensate for them.

In this respect, they provide examples in their article of executives that have successfully exercised self-awareness, ranging from the CEO of PepsiCo to the Thomas Cook Group.

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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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