During a teambuilding session this week, I led a leadership team in an exercise to identify style.  I asked them each to work in groups to identify three words that described each person’s leadership style; then they had to switch groups and try to match the words with the correct person.

As we were debriefing, someone made the observation that they hadn’t really come up with words to describe leadership style, but rather words to describe personality.  There were descriptors like sense of humor, compassion, energetic and steady.  We had some debate about that.  Some people said, what’s the difference, really? Some argued that the difference was significant, that personality was innate and leadership style was learned.  Others said, the exercise is too simplistic; you can’t describe a leadership style in three words anyway.  There is so much more to be said.

Finally, we said that personality characteristics influence leadership style to such an extent as to perhaps make them inseparable.  And that what really matters is the three words that get through loud and clear to those we lead.  When one employee asks another, “What is your manager like?” that question usually gets answered with about three descriptors.  “She’s harsh.  She barks orders at you and doesn’t listen.”  Or, “He’s great, everyone really feels like he gets where we’re coming from.  But he expects results.”  We can sit in leadership classes and talk about complicated theories and models all we want—and I’m not saying it’s without merit—but in the end, our employees will distill us down to a few descriptors that arguably describe personality more than anything  else.  And because we all have blind spots, it’s important to get a handle on what those descriptors are likely to be.  Ask your colleagues, your employees and your spouse.  Use a 360 instrument.  Search for clues in your interactions with others.  Until you really understand how you come across to those you lead, you’ll find it hard to assess your leadership effectiveness.


  1. What a thought provoking training this must have been. I think there is a personality/leadership correlation and maybe even causation. And absolutely we arrive at about 3 descriptors of a manager. So, this begs the question-can leadership be taught? If it’s personality, how mutable/coachable/trainable is someone so that they become a better or great leader? What are the leadership qualities that are generally desired? How do we control for personality differences that then require leadership differences? Are their universally respected leaders? And what’s the place of values in all of this?
    Respectfully submitted.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kathleen! Yes, it was an interesting session, and many of these same questions came up. If there was a dominant point of view, it was probably that leaders are born more than made, but that everyone can improve incrementally through training, plus increase self awareness.