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Become a Better Leader

by Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux
published in MIT Sloan Management Review, 2012
Ref SMR53312

Become a Better LeaderTraits that benefit an executive in one position often do not work well in another position. Moving into new roles or environments, executives may need to play up or rein in different facets of their personalities. Strengths can become weaknesses.

Psychologists have identified countless traits distinguishing us from one another. But recent research has converged toward five broad dimensions, each comprising a cluster of traits that account for the majority of the differences among individual personalities. These dimensions have been dubbed the Big Five: need for stability, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Drawing on their extensive coaching work with senior executives, the authors identify common leadership pitfalls associated with high and low scores on each of the Big Five personality dimensions, as well as potential solutions. For example, executives who tend to dominate group settings - demonstrating high levels of extraversion - can practice the ‘four-sentence’ rule: limiting whatever they have to say to four sentences. Executives who are too blunt or aggressive - demonstrating low levels of agreeableness - can practice the art of cushioning their criticisms with phrases such as ‘let me play devil’s advocate for a moment’ or ‘if I put on my critic’s hat.’ Self-awareness, the authors conclude, is the inevitable starting point for managing one’s psychological preferences. Without it, executives will struggle to evolve or find coping strategies. With it, leaders can learn where their natural inclinations lie - and they can boost or compensate for those inclinations, depending on the circumstances. The idea is not to undergo a personality change. It is to be yourself, with more skill.

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About the authors

Ginka Toegel is a professor at IMD, Switzerland.

Jean-Louis Barsoux is a senior research fellow at INSEAD, France.

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