leadership personality

Given the financial and societal impact of global business, there’s an urgent need to understand leadership personality.

If we fail to appreciate how leaders’ personalities influence strategic decisions, we risk selecting leaders incapable of setting an organization’s direction.

Think about it. We are amidst great social, economic, scientific, and political change. Intelligent approaches count more than ever if we’re to build sustainable results in rapidly changing, complex markets. Leadership personalities, priorities, and worldviews influence leaders’ decisions on strategic plans.

Global Challenges

Today’s leaders must excel at managing globalization’s systemic challenges. There’s no such thing as economic or political insularity. Every society’s problems affect the international community.

There’s no going back. Businesses cannot return to the leadership that was effective decades ago. To move forward, leaders must strive for economic success and the well-being of workers, customers and the environment.

You can see that across the globe, there’s growing political unrest, terrorism, climate change, economic disparities among nations, and healthcare needs for an aging population. If these issues aren’t sufficiently daunting, companies are dealing with continuous invention and experimentation. There’s a technology surplus today; we have invented much more than practical applications require.

Leadership for the Future

Nobody can predict what kind of leadership personalities will be needed in the future. The next 20 years will see radical advances in nanotechnology, genomics and gene therapy, robotics, artificial intelligence, bioscience, bioengineered agriculture, environmental and energy research, and medicine. Will our organizations’ leaders rise to meet the challenges?

From what I see in the organizations where I consult, we must prepare today’s leaders for an uncertain future. For progress to occur in nondestructive ways, we need strong, visionary leaders who can unleash the power of emerging technologies and manage global diversity to benefit the common good.

But how we’ve chosen leaders over the last 50 years may not serve us well in the coming decades. Primarily a manufacturing society, the strong leaders excelled at processes that could be replicated, measured, and improved. Operations were key to success, and leaders tended to be obsessive, “by the book,” and conservative. They preserved order and maintained company values.

In contrast, 75% of today’s employees provide services. They’re knowledge workers who perform mental tasks instead of assembling product parts. Companies need leaders who can engage the workforce, manage people, and inspire collaboration and innovation.

Four Leadership Personality Types That Matter

From what I see in the organizations where I consult, there’s an urgent need to understand leadership personality. Today―especially for the future―we need leaders who can engage the workforce, manage people, and inspire collaboration and innovation.

Evaluation of leadership personality types is an essential part of the selection process for CEOs and top executives. Still, we may not fully comprehend how important personality types are for influencing leadership effectiveness.

Most of us intuitively recognize different personality types. We routinely notice personality quirks in coworkers that baffle us, challenging our responses and relationships.

Personality typing is not an intellectual pursuit for psychologists, nor a parlor game that helps us get along with others. Leaders in charge of developing business strategies set priorities based on their personality type and innate drives.

Many popular assessment tools reveal personality preference, including the Myers-Briggs Indicator, DISC personality assessment tool, and 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire. Each is useful, yet few of us precisely understand what they divulge.

Leadership selection can no longer be based solely on prior experience or successes. Yesterday’s challenges (productivity, profit, efficiency) remain critical, but today’s leaders must also grapple with new technologies, global diversity, and political and environmental instability.

Four Basic Personality Types

Freud pioneered our understanding of human nature by classifying three personality types: erotic, obsessive, and narcissistic. The psychologist Erich Fromm added a fourth type: the marketing personality described by Michael Maccoby in Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails, Crown Business, 2012.

These terms are somewhat misleading because of their negative connotations. The four types are classified according to what drives people and how they achieve a sense of security.

“Erotics” (not a sexual term) are driven by love, a need to care for others and, in return, be loved and appreciated. These individuals are relationship-oriented. Some management theorists call this personality type “enabling,” while others name it “amiable,” “diplomatic,” “supportive,” or “compliant.” Erotics are often found in education, social services, and health care, but they exist in every field. When they are most productive, they bring people together, making connections and facilitating collaboration. They seldom turn down a favor or someone in need. The downside to this personality is codependency and indecisiveness.

Leadership Personalities: Obsessives and Marketing Types

I’ve been discussing leadership personalities and the importance of evaluating leadership potential using personality types. Past performance isn’t sufficient for finding and selecting tomorrow’s leaders. There are too many complex global challenges that future leaders will face.

An excellent book, Michael Maccoby in Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Crown Business, 2012) offers a great review of personality types as they appear in leadership in organizations.

The four basic personality types are erotics (not a sexual term), obsessives, marketing, and narcissistic. This post describes obsessive leaders and marketing personality types. 

“Obsessives” are driven by a need for security, consistency, rules, and logical order. You’ll spot them in every field—especially government bureaucracies, engineering firms, and law and financial offices. As leaders, they focus on operations, details, and numbers. They’re often called “analytical,” “detail-oriented,” or “numbers people.” Obsessives are guided by rules set by some higher authority (a father figure, strict conscience, or “the way things have always been done.”)

Most middle managers and some top executives are obsessives, especially CFOs, COOs, and some CEOs. The most productive obsessives are viewed as “systematic” or “analytical. Obsessives often hold the #2 position to a narcissistic CEO—an unbeatable combination of narcissistic vision and obsessive implementation. The problems associated with the obsessive personality type are well-known:

  1. They become mired in details and rules.
  2. They lose sight of overall goals.
  3. They’re more concerned with doing things “the right way” than doing the right thing.
  4. They may become control freaks and/or micromanagers.
  5. They resist change to the point of obsolescence.
  6. They can be rigid, judgmental and cheap.
  7. They insist on being right.

The “marketing personality” describes people who, as the name implies, adapt to the market’s demands. They’re driven by the need to be accepted and fit into society. They sense what the market wants and needs and conform to it. They align themselves with key people, thrive on change, and seek others’ approval. We adopt some of these aspects to survive in today’s volatile workplace. The biggest challenge with marketing types is their lack of a firm center and continual anxiety. They favor style over substance, spend a lot of energy selling themselves or chasing the next shiny thing, and may be incapable of fully committing to anything or anyone.

Leadership Personalities: Narcissistic Types

Everyone I talk with is familiar with the narcissistic type of leader, but not many people understand precisely how the term can apply in both a positive and a negative sense. Mostly the term is bandied about to describe all sorts of negative and destructive behaviors.

I think we can explore how productive narcissistic personalities help organizations and, in some cases, may be effective leadership personalities for future challenges.

A good book to read to understand this concept is Michael Maccoby in Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Crown Business, 2012).

“Narcissists” are driven by the need to be unique, express their creativity and achieve greatness, and they’re readily spotted in leadership positions. The term carries a negative connotation, but it was originally meant to be descriptive (neither good nor bad). A narcissist can be productive (or not) and moral (or not). We often misuse the term, applying it to leaders who are egocentric, greedy, self-aggrandizing, and of little benefit to their organizations and colleagues. A productive narcissist may be viewed as a visionary leader.

Narcissists’ need to achieve greatness overrides everything else. They seldom listen to others and often show little interest in their coworkers (except those who can help them get what they want). Few social controls are built into their mental model of how the world works. They aren’t worried about conscience or losing others’ love or respect and don’t bend to peer pressure or what the public wants.

The narcissist has few internal demands to do the right thing. He answers to himself as to what is right, decides what he values and determines what gives him a sense of meaning.

While the other personality types (obsessives, erotics, marketing types) are deeply motivated to do whatever it takes to maintain their sense of security, narcissists never garner security from relationships or skills. Rather, they recruit people to join them in their worldview.

There’s a case to be made for narcissistic CEOs who can lead companies to greatness, inspire followers and achieve game-changing solutions in our rapidly changing world. “It is narcissistic leaders who take us to places we’ve never been before, who innovate, who build empires out of nothing.” ~ Michael Maccoby, Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Crown Business, 2012).

Productive Leadership Personality Types

From what I see in the organizations where I consult, there’s an urgent need to understand leadership personality. All personality types have positive and negative potentials that can be described in terms of two hierarchies: productiveness and moral reasoning.

Freud pioneered our understanding of human nature with his classification of three personality types: erotic, obsessive and narcissistic. The psychologist Erich Fromm added a fourth type: the marketing personality as described by Michael Maccoby in Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails, Crown Business, 2012.

Maccoby does an excellent review of these four leadership personality types, all with both positive and negative potential.

Productive vs. Nonproductive: Productive individuals are healthier than less developed, or even disturbed, personalities. A productive person is active and enthusiastic—someone who returns from failure and perseveres to achieve a reasoned purpose.

In contrast, unproductive people are less free and more reactive. They lack a clear purpose and are driven by addictive needs that make them fearful and dependent.

Moral Reasoning: Higher levels of moral reasoning don’t guarantee that actions will always have their intended benefits; however, we want leaders who seek to achieve a common good, not just feather their own nests.

While morally developed people are almost always productive, there are active, enthusiastic, productive people who cut corners (or worse) and score poorly on the moral reasoning scale. In other words, being productive doesn’t necessarily mean being good.


Related Post: Winning the War for Leadership Talent


The Dark Sides

Erotic Personality Types: When they are most productive, they bring people together, making connections and facilitating collaboration. This personality’s downside is codependency, indecisiveness, wanting to please everyone and indecisiveness.

Obsessives: The problems associated with the obsessive personality type are well known. They become mired in details and rules, losing sight of goals which can be rigid and judgmental, insisting on doing it their way. They become control freaks.

Marketing Personality Types: The biggest challenge with marketing types is their lack of a firm center, lack of commitment and continual shifting. They favor style over substance, spend a lot of energy selling themselves or chasing the next shiny thing, and may be incapable of fully committing to anything or anyone.

Narcissists and their need to achieve greatness can override everything else. They seldom listen to others and show little interest in coworkers. They aren’t worried about conscience or losing others’ love or respect. The narcissist has few internal demands to do the right thing.

Yet, all four personality types’ productive and moral sides bring added advantages to leadership. Surprisingly, when used appropriately, the narcissistic leader is one of the strongest leadership personalities.

Narcissistic or Visionary Leadership?

There’s a case to be made for narcissistic CEOs who can lead companies to greatness, inspire followers and achieve game-changing solutions in our rapidly changing world.

“It is narcissistic leaders who take us to places we’ve never been before, who innovate, who build empires out of nothing.”~ Michael Maccoby, Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Crown Business, 2012).

Narcissists gain personal security and overcome isolation by creating a vision others can follow. This motivates them to be captivating, inspirational, charming and seductive.

History and business have witnessed legions of successful, productive narcissists who led their organizations to great success: Napoleon, Rockefeller, Roosevelt and Churchill. In the last 20 years, we’ve enjoyed radical advances from companies led by productive narcissists like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, Howard Schultz, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey.

Many companies, even those known for innovation, don’t want to hire visionary narcissists. No matter how much their leaders encourage independent thinking and creativity, many have little tolerance for true originals or mavericks. They prefer the obsessive leader driven to please and enforce company rules.

Productive narcissists want to create new paradigms that change the way we live and work. Conversely, obsessive business leaders excel at cutting costs, culling nonperformers from the pack, and implementing the right processes and systems. Which is the better leadership personality type for the future?

The answer, of course, depends on context. At this time in history, we need more creative energy and passion than ever.

Strategic intelligence differentiates the more successful visionary leaders from the failures (besides moral reasoning), which is why leadership personality matters.

Leaders in charge of developing business strategies set priorities based on their personality type and innate drives. Selecting leaders through an assessment of personality can help ensure the right fit.

“All people, especially leaders, need a healthy dose of narcissism…it’s the engine that drives leadership.”~ Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

What’s your opinion? Are you looking for help identifying different personality types in your organization? I’d love to work with you to develop a succession plan. Schedule a free exploratory call here.

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