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Why Executives React: Personality Patterns That Survive at the Top

When executives react to new challenges, the data show that they tend to manage—assigning, telling, pushing, driving. Far less frequent is the tendency to lead—inspiring, stretching, growing, and innovating.

Why? Perhaps because so many executives are wired to behave that way.

In Part 1 of our Leadership Insights series, we looked into the specific behaviors that characterize executives’ responses to new challenges. Now in our second article, we ask the question:

Which personality patterns are most typical of executives, and how does personality relate to executive leadership behavior?

With each successive step up the leadership ladder, there is an increase in the role that personality plays in success. As assignments become more difficult, leaders must react more frequently on instinct, and instinct is driven by personality.

Make no mistake, with self-awareness and training, leaders can and do improve on their instinctive reactions. This is why we believe that when it comes to growing great leaders, behavior rules. But bigger assignments mean more complexity, broader visibility, less time to think, heightened pressure, and more demands to present oneself to others and make judgments without preparation. The outcome: personality exerts greater influence on behavior for executives.

So, a look into the personality characteristics seen in those who make it to the top can help to explain where some of the most common behavior patterns come from, and instruct our efforts to ensure we have the right leaders in place, with the right development support, to address the challenges of the future.

The Executive Personality

Our data1 show that as a group, executives are steeped in energy, drive, and passion, and are comfortable making decisions independently. While many have a strategic, creative mindset, even more are practical and dependable, focused more on getting things done in the here and now rather than shaping the future. An impatient action orientation and strong emotions (at times erratic) are more frequent attributes than careful planning and thoughtfulness. Many executives remain rooted in familiar ways of doing things, with resistance to change being more prevalent than the emotional sensitivity needed to help others cope with it.

To trace the origins of these conclusions, and to make sense of them in the context of organizational leadership, it is important to tell the story from four unique perspectives on the personalities of executives:

  • Enablers–the bright side of personality—more easily-noticed characteristics that tend to help leaders succeed
  • Derailers–the dark side of personality—emerge during periods of stress (i.e., when instinct takes over the most)
  • Executive Dispositions–combinations of enablers and derailers that form broader personality patterns
  • Dispositions and Behaviors–relationships between Executive Dispositions and leadership behaviors

Personality Enablers–The Bright Side

Looking first at the bright side, executives seem to show a fairly typical personality profile, with all factors within or near the average range. However, we do see some important variations. Enabler differences between executives and others are generally modest, but it cannot be ignored that executives score higher in 6 of 7 enablers, with Interpersonal Sensitivity being the one attribute for which the executive average is lower.

Among the personality factors that help leaders succeed, we see more of almost everything at the top, particularly energy and competitiveness (Ambition), but less of one distinct attribute: sensitivity to the emotional cues of others. By itself this would tell us important things about the nature of the executive personality prototype, suggesting that executives are by and large an average group with somewhat more drive and less empathy than others.

But there is more to the story.

Personality Derailers–The Dark Side

Being human means being imperfect, and since most executives are human (as far as we can prove), leadership performance is not always characterized by such productive tendencies.

Looking across the 11 derailer averages, we first notice (perhaps with some relief) that the scores average in the low risk zone. Executives, on the whole, appear not to be a dysfunctional crowd (your horrible former boss is only one data point). Of course, like any distribution, there are still significant proportions of executives who do score in the moderate and high risk zones, some significantly more so than others.

Most noteworthy are the higher mean scores and at-risk proportions for Impulsive and Volatile, which denote a higher proportion of executives who tend toward reckless action-orientation (Impulsive), and unstable emotional variability (Volatile). Far less frequent among executives are those who are obsessed with details (Perfectionistic) and those needing the sanction and support of others before taking action (Approval Dependent).

Evidently, leaders who bring passion and action to the table and avoid minutiae and permission from above are more likely to be granted increased responsibility. No surprise in that, only we know that derailers are not given their name for the positive behaviors that arise from them.

This aggregate derailer pattern depicts a culture among senior leaders that is so biased toward energy, speed, and movement that it becomes tolerant of individuals who embrace unproductive habits in taking action without appropriate planning, and allow emotions to fly in ways that cause collateral social damage.

Impatience, drive, and chaos dominate over patience, strategy, and measured action.

But there is still more to the story. When we examine combinations of scores from among the scales above, we find further evidence of the most dominant personality patterns (dispositions) among executives.

Executive Dispositions–Patterns that Matter

Enablers and derailers do not operate purely in isolation of one another. Often they interact in ways that form broader dispositions which have important leadership implications. Examples include: Independent Decision Maker, which takes into account one’s desire to lead (Ambition) and one’s sensitivity to others’ emotions (Interpersonal Sensitivity), or Resistant to Change, which includes one’s orientation toward structure (Prudence), over-confidence (Arrogance), and concern with making mistakes (Risk Averse).

The most common dispositions corroborate the aforementioned prevalence of executives who are decisive (Independent Decision Maker) and action-oriented (Operational/Pragmatic), but also those with erratic emotions (Emotionally Unpredictable) and more emphasis on perpetuating the status quo (Resistant to Change) as opposed to embracing new approaches.

It is important to add, however, that the proportion of Strategic/Creative leaders is not dramatically lower than the others, indicating that there are still many executives who do bring a strategic orientation to their leadership approaches. They are simply not as common as their more pragmatic peers.

Note, also, that the somewhat higher proportion of Insensitive/Detached and Self-Promoting leaders suggests less empathy and social support in an environment characterized by high-energy, pressing forward, and taking instruction and guidance from the leader who maintains prominence as the center point in the organization or team.

What does it all mean? The final chapter to the story explains.

Dispositions and Behavior–Personality in Action

What happens when leaders with strong dispositions lead? To answer the question, we looked at how executive dispositions related to competency behaviors observed in DDI’s executive simulations (see Part 1 of this Leadership Insights series for more detail). Several of the strongest associations are below (note that all associations are statistically significant effects2).

Looking first at the enabler patterns, the relationships seem logical, yet illuminate (objectively) many associations that are otherwise discussed more subjectively (and unreliably). Executives with Strategic/Creative personalities show stronger performance in crafting long-range strategy and capitalizing on market opportunities. More Sociable & Empathetic executives are stronger influencers and coaches, and forge networks more effectively. Senior leaders who are more Driven/Energetic show stronger influence and decision making, and push harder for results.

On the derailer side (note: these are negative relationships), executives with Micromanager tendencies perform more poorly in making decisions, and in sharing responsibility with others. Insensitive/Detached executives struggle to build effective networks. And executives who are Resistant to Change perform more poorly in building long-term strategies and capitalizing on market potential.

In the end, personality manifests itself in behavior at the top. Enabling dispositions enhance crucial elements of leadership, while derailing dispositions inhibit others. Understanding these relationships can have substantial impact on our efforts to ensure we have capable leadership at the top.

Now, the conclusion to the story.


Behavior matters, and personality matters, but behavior and personality together matter more.

These results indicate that the patterns of behavior demonstrated by executives have identifiable roots in personality. And because personality changes little among adults, it places boundaries around the behaviors that leaders can learn.

In order to change, it is essential to embrace what we cannot change. Establishing a development plan for an executive who wishes to enhance her strategic planning skills would be better informed by having an understanding of her personality patterns in the areas of Strategic/Creative and Resistant to Change. The risk associated with placing a less-experienced leader into a major business assignment may hinge on his ability to address his strong Micromanager tendency.

How we develop and deploy talent at the top of our organizations must be informed by a clear definition of the behaviors needed for success, and a deep understanding of the personalities of the leaders who seek to display those behaviors. In theory, leaders can engage in any behaviors they choose. In reality, personality will have something to say about it.

Will our investment in results cost us the ability to change?

As we did in Part 1 of this Leadership Insights series, we see the dominant pattern among executive personalities tending toward decisiveness, action, operational pragmatism, passion and energy, and speed. But along with these hard-charging virtues are prevalent orientations toward impatience, emotional volatility, resistance to new approaches, and a short supply of interpersonal sensitivity and support (EQ) to help people cope as the mayhem and complexity mounts around them.

In a world characterized by constant change and the need to continually enhance capability, we must once again ask about the cost of the focus on decisiveness and results. The behaviors and personalities that survive and thrive at the top appear to be those that enable executives to generate action and movement, but seemingly for circumstances that are familiar and preserve the status quo.

If the need to change our organizations is increasing, will a different personality profile be needed? How much do we know about how well the hard-wired characteristics of our future senior leaders match the demands that they will face? Will development come easily? Or will we be asking leaders to make changes that their personalities resist?

What's Ahead?

The next segment of our Leadership Insights series looks into the third component of our insight equation—Context. In Part 3, we put behavior and personality into context, and examine the business situations for which leaders are most and least prepared.

Appendix–Global Leadership Inventories–Definitions

Leadership Effectiveness Inventory

  • Adjustment–High scorers tend to be calm, self-confident and steady under pressure. Low scorers tend to be tense, moody, and may not handle pressure well.
  • Ambition–High scorers tend to be energetic, competitive, and eager to advance themselves. Low scorers tend to be quiet, unassertive, and less interested in advancement.
  • Sociability–High scorers tend to be outgoing, impulsive, and dislike working by themselves. Low scorers tend to be reserved and quiet; they do not call attention to themselves, and do not mind working alone.
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity–High scorers tend to be friendly, warm, and sociable. Low scorers tend to be independent, frank, and direct.
  • Prudence–High scorers tend to be organized, dependable, and thorough; they follow rules well and are easy to supervise. Low scorers tend to be impulsive and flexible; they tend to resist rules and close supervision, however, they may be spontaneous and creative.
  • Inquisitiveness–High scorers tend to be imaginative, inventive, and quick-witted; they may be easily bored and may not pay attention to details. Low scorers tend to be practical and down-to-earth; they are willing to tolerated boring tasks.
  • Learning Orientation–High scorers tend to enjoy education and perform well in training. Low scorers are less interested in formal training and tend not to perform well in school or training environments.

Leadership Challenge Inventory

  • Volatile–Concerns seeming moody, easily irritated, hard to please, and deals with stress by ending relationships or quitting.
  • Argumentative–Concerns mistrusting others’ intentions, being alert for signs of mistreatment, and then challenging or blaming others when it seems to occur.
  • Risk Averse–Concerns being overly concerned about making mistakes or being embarrassed, and then becoming defensive and conservative when stressed.
  • Imperceptive–Concerns seeming independent, uncaring, aloof, uncomfortable with strangers, and dealing with stress by withdrawing or being uncommunicative.
  • Avoidant–Concerns wanting to work according to one’s own pace and standards, and feeling put upon when asked to work faster or differently.
  • Arrogant–Concerns the tendency to over evaluate one’s talents, not admit mistakes or take advice, and blustering or bluffing when under pressure.
  • Impulsive–Concerns taking risks, testing limits, making hasty decisions, not learning from experience, and demanding to move on when confronted with mistakes.
  • Attention Seeking–Concerns expecting to be seen as talented and interesting, ignoring other’s requests, and becoming very busy when under pressure.
  • Eccentric–Concerns being eccentric—acting and thinking in creative and sometimes unusual ways—and becoming unpredictable when stressed.
  • Perfectionistic–Concerns having high standards of performance for self and others, being meticulous, precise, picky, critical, and stubborn when under pressure.
  • Approval Dependent–Concerns being cordial, agreeable, and eager to please, reluctant to take independent action, and conforming when under pressure.
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