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Musings on the 'Big Five' and their implications for learning to be a leader

16-April-2015
16-April-2015 0:00
in Leadership
by Gwyn Rogers

Leaders are born.  Leaders are made.  Oh how fondly I remember the debate when I was a journeyman psychologist working in one of the first Business Psychology companies in the UK.  At that time, the idea that a person’s innate personality determines whether they could ever be an effective leader was such a hot topic.  The counter argument, of course, is that most people could learn to be a leader if they were motivated to do so and had the ‘right’ development support.

 

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  Some people naturally possess characteristics which are directly associated with leadership effectiveness, regardless of the specific environment in which they have to lead.  Take some of the factors of emotional intelligence for example.  Those people who are better at controlling their emotions, who can ‘read’ and empathise with others and who use emotion in a positive way to enthuse their teams are more likely to get to the top and to be successful when they get there.  A recent blog by my colleague, Sarah Kiessler, looked at these topics in more depth.

 

It’s also true that in-depth, development plays a massive role.  For example, tailored coaching, training, mentoring and targeted experience all contribute to people achieving their full potential.  There are plenty of studies which show that development has a positive and tangible effect on performance and behavior.  Development also releases people’s motivation and stimulates their ‘discretionary effort’ as well as making them feel valued, which in turn has a direct effect on retention.

 

But there is a third topic for consideration – whether a person has the potential to develop.  Are some people more disposed to learn?  Received wisdom has always told us that intelligence is the most important factor here.  Well, at the risk of sounding like a psychologist, yes… and no.

 

It’s true that having a certain amount of intellectual ability helps.  And now there are further indications that there are other factors which have an even greater bearing.  The same Five Factor Model of personality which we use to describe leadership capability and potential can also help us understand which characteristics dispose us to learn to be leaders.  Recent work by Dr Arthur Poropat indicates that being open to new experiences, having a greater inclination to ‘play with ideas’ and being more prepared to try new things helps.  Similarly, being conscientious, goal orientated and structured also links directly with people’s learning success.  Whilst we might intuitively expect these conclusions to be the case, it’s good to see these assumptions proven scientifically.  Furthermore, what is more surprising is that these factors are each four times more important than intelligence in predicting success in people’s ability to learn to lead.

 

It appears, then, that the Five Factor model continues to be useful, not only in terms of helping us understand what makes leaders succeed or fail.  It also informs our understanding about identifying and developing those who have the greatest potential to lead us.

 

At the beginning of this blog, I also referred to people having the motivation to learn.  Our personal motivators vary.  Some of us feel good about ourselves when we achieve; others when we are seen to be in charge, or when we are part of a successful team.  These underlying needs cause us to invest our energy in satisfying them.  In these examples, those motivated by achievement will be driven and goal orientated.  Those who like to be seen to be in charge will perhaps seek to take control or to emphasise their importance to others.  And so on.

 

One other key psychological driver is Personal Growth – the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment from learning new things.  Having this as a personal motivator can significantly influence whether people ‘stick at it’ and judge their personal success in terms of whether they are developing and learning.  I had a boss once who judged himself by the new ideas he discovered and whether he had learned something new that week.  Almost every day there was a new idea or theory put to us about leadership development.  Over the years I worked with him, I watched him take ownership of his own development, sometimes prioritizing learning and development for himself and the team above more pressing business Challenges.  Ultimately though, he blossomed into a successful senior leader.

 

So, from a leadership assessment and development perspective, there are two other factors to consider beyond the effects of natural make-up and environmental influences on whether someone will flourish as a leader.  Do they have an inner need and motivator to grow?  And do they demonstrate the underlying personality characteristics, as described by NEO, which will enhance their capacity to do so?