What Is Personality? Despite its common usage, Robert Hogan noted that the term personality is fairly ambiguous and has at least two quite different meanings. One meaning refers to the impression a person makes on others. This view of personality emphasizes a person’s social reputation and reflects not only a description but also an evaluation of the person in the eyes of others. From the standpoint of leadership, this view of personality addresses two distinct issues: “What kind of leader or person is this?” and “Is this somebody I would like to work for or be associated with?” In a practical sense, this view of personality comes into play whenever you describe the person you work for to a roommate or friend. For example, you might describe him or her as pushy, honest, outgoing, impulsive, decisive, friendly, and independent. Furthermore, whatever impression this leader made on you, chances are others would use many of the same terms of description. In that vein, many people would probably say that U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, self-confident, outgoing, articulate, ambitious, and level-headed.
The second meaning of personality emphasizes the underlying, unseen structures and processes inside a person that explain why we behave the way we do—why each person’s behavior tends to be relatively similar across different situations, yet also different from another person’s behavior. Over the years psychologists have developed many theories to explain how such unseen structures may cause individuals to act in their characteristic manner. For example, Sigmund Freud believed that the intrapsychic tensions among the id, ego, and superego caused one to behave in characteristic ways even if the real motives behind the behaviors were unknown to the person (that is, unconscious). Although useful insights about personality have come from many different theories, most of the research addressing the relationship between personality and leadership success has been based on the trait approach, and that emphasis is most appropriate here.
Traits refer to recurring regularities or trends in a person’s behavior, and the trait approach to personality maintains that people behave as they do because of the strengths of the traits they possess. Although traits cannot be seen, they can be inferred from consistent patterns of behavior and reliably measured by personality inventories. For example, the personality trait of conscientiousness differentiates leaders who tend to be hardworking and rule abiding from those who tend to be lazy and are more prone to break rules. Leaders getting higher scores on the trait of conscientiousness on personality inventories would be more likely to come to work on time, do a thorough job in completing work assignments, and rarely leave work early. We would also infer that leaders getting lower scores on the trait of conscientiousness would be more likely to be late to appointments, make impulsive decisions, or fail to follow through with commitments and achieve results.
Personality traits are useful concepts for explaining why people act fairly consistently from one situation to the next. This cross-situational consistency in behavior may be thought of as analogous to the seasonal weather patterns in different cities. We know that it is extremely cold and dry in Minneapolis in January and hot and humid in Hong Kong in August. Therefore, we can do a pretty good job of predicting what the weather will generally be like in Minneapolis in January, even though our predictions for any particular day will not be perfect. Although the average January temperature in Minneapolis hovers around 20°F, the temperature ranges from 230°F to 30°F on any single day in January. Similarly, knowing how two people differ on a particular personality trait can help us predict more accurately how they will tend to act in a variety of situations. .
Just as various climate factors can affect the temperature on any single day, so can external factors affect a leader’s behavior in any given situation. The trait approach maintains that a leader’s behavior reflects an interaction between his or her personality traits and various situational factors (see, for example, Highlight 6.1). Traits play a particularly important role in determining how people behave in unfamiliar, ambiguous, or what we might call weak situations. On the other hand, situations that are governed by clearly specified rules, demands, or organizational policies— strong situations —often minimize the effects traits have on behavior.
The strength of the relationship between personality traits and leadership effectiveness is often inversely related to the relative strength of the situation; that is, personality traits are more closely related to leadership effectiveness in weak or ambiguous situations. Given the accelerated pace of change in most organizations today, it is likely that leaders will face even more unfamiliar and ambiguous situations in the future. Therefore, personality traits may play an increasingly important role in a leader’s behavior. If organizations can accurately identify the personality traits of leadership and the individuals who possess them, they should be able to do a better job of promoting the right people into leadership positions. And if the right people are in leadership positions, the odds of achieving organizational success should be dramatically improved. The next section describes some research efforts to identify those personality traits that help leaders build teams and get results through others.
Personality and the Presidency
Traits are unseen dispositions that can affect the way people act. Their existence can be inferred by a leader’s consistent pattern of behaviors. For example, one way of examining a leader’s standing on the trait of achievement orientation is to examine her or his achievements and accomplishments over a life span. Leaders with higher levels of achievement orientation tend to set high personal goals and are persistent in the pursuit of these goals. When considering the following leader’s achievements and accomplishments, think about this person’s standing on this personality trait, and try to guess who this person might be:
Age 23: lost a job.
Age 23: was defeated in a bid for state legislature.
Age 24: failed in a business venture.
Age 25: was elected to state legislature.
Age 26: sweetheart died.
Age 27: experienced several emotional problems.
Age 27: was defeated in a bid to be speaker of the house.
Age 34: was defeated for nomination to Congress.
Age 37: was elected to Congress.
Age 39: lost renomination to Congress.
Age 40: was defeated in a bid for land office.
Age 45: was defeated in a bid for U.S. Senate.
Age 47: was defeated for nomination to be vice president.
Age 49: was defeated in a second bid for U.S. Senate.
Age 51: was elected president of the United States.
The person was Abraham Lincoln.