The personality of a leader

Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

Goshen College is in the process of articulating a new mission statement, and (spoiler alert!) it will likely include the word “leaders.” And this has gotten me thinking rather deeply about leadership.

Leadership is about social influence. When people are considered “born leaders,” we mean that they seem to naturally hold influence over others. Perhaps they light up the room or they bring an air of gravitas. If they suggest we all do something, the suggestion is compelling by force of their natural way of being social — their personality.

But leadership also means discerning goals and committing to them, often when the path to the goal is uncertain. If the goal is simple, say choosing which movie a group will see, personality might carry the day — and often does. But for significant long-term goals, leadership entails a wide variety of behaviors and communications used carefully and adaptively, often in complex ways and frequently against the grain of one’s personality.

Ultimately, leadership requires me to go beyond the normal limits of my personality. It involves learning to see my influence in action and to consciously modulate it. For me, as an introvert, I have learned to steward and harness my social energy so that I can expend it when needed most. (Me to myself: “It’s time to talk now, smile now, put energy out now!”) Likewise, as someone whose personality is careful to avoid offense, to deal with conflict I have learned to look someone in the eye and ask the hard question or state my view clearly. There is nothing wrong with my personality, but leadership requires me to develop a larger repertoire of behaviors.

Whatever personality we begin with, leaders learn to work with their personalities and beyond their personalities rather than be constrained by them. I think there is no ‘personality of a leader;’ leaders are people who learn to transcend their personalities to influence for good. And that means that anyone can learn the skills of leadership. What do you think?

Rebecca Stoltzfus