Is a strong personality an asset or a hindrance in leadership and how does it compare to character?
As is the case when dealing with people, there is no clear-cut right or wrong ‘type’ of personality. The ability to flex styles and meet the needs of various situations is an asset however we all have ingrained preferences, beliefs, characteristics and personalities. A ‘strong’ personality in itself is also neither good nor bad. However when an individual possesses too dominant or overbearing a personality it can certainly challenge relationships in and out of the workplace.
I like to think of personality and character as related, yet with significant differences. An online definition of personality references character as if they are the same, or at least heavily influenced by the other.
per-son-al-i-ty: noun1. the visible aspect of one’s character as it impresses others: He has a pleasing personality.2. a person as an embodiment of a collection of qualities: He is a curious personality.3. Psychology: a. the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual; b. the organized pattern of behavioral characteristics of the individual.4. the quality of being a person; existence as a self-conscious human being; personal identity.
In what I consider and have proven (at least to myself) to be an astute choice, when recruiting I am much more likely to select a candidate based on character than personality-based attributes. Of course, both are important as is background, skills and capability, although many of the requirements for the role can be taught. It is much more difficult to change someone’s ingrained personality traits.
A risk in recruitment is to hire people who are most like yourself, or those we naturally affiliate with, sharing similar personality traits and views . This is most often not an optimum strategy. Variation and diversity are all attributes that within a team are more likely to add value to the business. Natural affiliation may mean that you will get along more easily with a person, however is that what is best for achieving the team and business goals, as well as the right contributing mix for the team? Generally, it is not, although developing an understanding of each person within the team and sharing this knowledge is most likely to create an environment where diversity is accepted and is a positive rather than a differentiator in a negative sense.
Force of personality is a poor substitute for strong character.
In life too often we see the ‘squeaky wheel’ receiving the most attention. We see this in hotels, retail establishments and in the workplace, amongst other times and places. As leaders we need to be aware of the differences and be clear in what we are looking for in our teams. Those who shout the loudest or longest are not necessarily the same people who have the best ideas or contribute with any more effectiveness than others who may be more reserved. Of course, when it comes to people, it is not a ‘perfect science’ and we have to make judgments every day to find the balance.
Although character traits are much more difficult to ascertain in the short-term than personality, the value add of spending the time to assess an individual more fully is worth the effort in the long term. Conversely the risk of getting it wrong, particularly in business, can be a difficult process to unwind. Alex Lickerman notes the key differences between character and personality, highlighted below:
Personality is easy to read, and we’re all experts at it. We judge people funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident—as well as overly serious, lazy, negative, and shy—if not upon first meeting them, then shortly thereafter. And though we may need more than one interaction to confirm the presence of these sorts of traits, by the time we decide they are, in fact, present we’ve usually amassed enough data to justify our conclusions.
Character, on the other hand, takes far longer to puzzle out. It includes traits that reveal themselves only in specific—and often uncommon—circumstances, traits like honesty, virtue, and kindliness. Ironically, research has shown that personality traits are determined largely by heredity and are mostly immutable. The arguably more important traits of character, on the other hand, are more malleable—though, we should note, not without great effort. Character traits, as opposed to personality traits, are based on beliefs (e.g., that honesty and treating others well is important—or not), and though beliefs can be changed, it’s far harder than most realize. (1)
It is interesting to see this play out within the friendship groups that our 3 daughter’s have formed. At age 6 there is little identification with anything other than affiliation and mostly personality-based relationships are formed. With our 9 year-old I can see the first signs of relationships strengthening or lessening based on values and character to a limited degree. Whereas this is obviously undefined and is mostly intuitive, the difference is there.
Our eldest daughter recently had 6 friends over for a sleepover to celebrate her 12th birthday. For the first substantial time, it is possible to see the resistance to the personalities that are over-bearing and/or more self-centric than others. In some cases we have even observed intervention and active management of situations within the friendship group when poor character traits or behaviours have been displayed. The stronger bonds have and are forming between the girls who display a depth of character and level of maturity more than others. It is still ill-defined and again mostly intuitive.
One of the interesting changes that I see as our girls have grown up is that the passive acceptance of the overtly strong personality is there to be seen and accepted to a degree, but appears to lessen as they mature and become more self-aware. I imagine in only a few short years these people will either need to taper down the overtness to find a better balance or continue to struggle in how they are sometimes seen and reacted to by others.
When coaching people, it is more common that I work on elements related to character than personality.
Character traits tend to be more fluid and yet, have a level of substance that, when changed, adds real depth to a person and how they are viewed by others. The challenges I see in an individual constantly putting their own ideas forward forcefully, talking over others and listening to little that is being discussed is that these behaviours offer an insight into their persona, not all of it positive. Others see this also and is regularly one of the key reasons I am engaged as a coach.
The outward appearance of these behaviours can make a person appear confident however when the surface is scratched the reality is often a degree of over-compensation for low self-esteem or confidence. I have even observed this with senior leaders and executives in business, which can be a surprise to many. This in itself, is part of the problem as I see it. The apparent broad-ranging and all-encompassing skills and capability deemed appropriate for leaders is misguided.
No one leader has the perfect mix of attributes and capability – neither do they need to. People talk about the fact that an individual leader does not need to possess all of these traits and attributes, however the expectations of others in reality places unreasonable expectations and pressure on our leaders. Many senior leaders feel this pressure and in some cases feel as if they are ‘frauds and are waiting to be found out’. This is a genuine challenge to business and to the leader themselves. I have even had some senior leaders make the statement that they would not be at such a level if they did not possess all of the skills and capabilities. If only that were true!
As the image in this blog identifies, personality is important as it reflects much of the outward image of how we are seen. Character is the bedrock that who we are is built upon and reflects and enables much of our belief system, values and the deeper aspects of us as individuals. When it comes to relationships in the workplace, we often have less choice who we associate with. As a leader, the point of difference is the level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence we have and are prepared to develop. It is also reflected in how much this is encouraged in our team members and through the type of culture and environment we create.
When it comes to people and personality there are no rights and wrongs. A ‘strong’ personality, when balanced and used to advantage can be a valuable asset…of course the opposite is also true. Depth and strength of character are certainly attributes and traits that I look for within my team members, both when recruiting and in their development. This forms a superb base to grow all elements of the person, team and business and without it, becomes a potential long-term challenge. What are your thoughts?
(1) Personality vs. Character: The key to discerning personality from character is time: Alex Lickerman, MD – Psychology Today