Accentuate the positive

Does knowing your personality traits help you lead better? asks Sally Feldman

May 8, 2008

I'm confident, gregarious, assertive, strong-willed, stubborn and competitive. But I'm not amiable. These are the results of the 360-degree appraisal exercise that all senior managers at the University of Westminster are undergoing in an effort to transform us into effective leaders of change.

Here's how it works. You fill in a grid assessing yourself against a series of personality traits and the same questionnaire is completed by your line manager, three of your peers and three people who report directly to you. Then these are matched to show how far your own view of yourself is shared by others.

Since it's designed to be developmental you're supposed to discuss the findings with those who assessed you, though frankly I'm not relishing an intimate discussion with whoever put me down as inflexible, over-opinionated and careless. Well, would you?

I did get an hour with the consultant who put the whole exercise together. "You've got a very unusual profile," he began. "Look at the consistency of these results." I preened, until he added: "Every single person has classified you as impatient, rebellious and restless. You're obviously a typical driven, ruthless, controlling manager. You get things done. You're certainly not amiable."

"Yes I am," I snarled, stung. "I can be."

"No, you can't be," he insisted. "You might be friendly. You're probably even generous. But amiable? No. Never. Now me - I'm definitely amiable. See, this is me being amiable now. I'm always looking for ways to smooth conflict, to be compliant, to build bridges."

"Well, who says I don't do that, as well as all the other things?" I demanded assertively, stubbornly and competitively.

"You know you don't," he said amiably. "You have to understand that this is a technical term, used by us organisational development consultants. We don't mean that driven, aggressive, goal-oriented people can't be charming. But you can't be amiable and, believe me, you don't want to be. I've measured over 1,500 people using this methodology, and I've come across maybe ten at the most who have your profile but are also amiable. And it's always a disaster. You see, the power-crazed part of the personality regards the soft, compliant side as a weakness, so in order to deny it that sort of manager will behave dominantly and belligerently. He'll be a bully, at best. And at worst ... ".

I waited expectantly. "At worst," he went on darkly, "we're talking psychopath." I couldn't help thinking that he sounded rather like a medieval apothecary, shaking his head over an unhappy balance of phlegm and choler. Then, as if to emphasise his kind and affable qualities, he added: "But don't forget, you've got a fantastic rating because everyone knows who you are. You know who you are. And you're just living up to your personality type by arguing with me."

The point of all this self-examination is to instil a sense of self-belief that, according to management consultant wisdom, is the secret of leadership. The National Health Service Institute for Innovation and Improvement, for example, defines self-belief as "the inner confidence that you will succeed and that you can overcome obstacles to achieve the best outcomes for service improvement".

"Self-belief and self-esteem are your secret allies," asserts self-help guru Fiona Harrold. "You've just got to be able to turn them on and boost them when you need them most. They are part of the armoury of all people who achieve great things."

But I can't help wondering whether endless navel-gazing is really such an asset after all. And in higher education it can be a positive liability, since most academics, regardless of their talents and abilities, tend to have a very highly developed sense of self-belief in the first place.

The other day, for example, a fellow dean was telling me how she'd attempted to deal with a head of department who had been the subject of numerous complaints about his officiousness and his patronising style. He listened to her carefully phrased summary, then patted her on the knee. "I'm afraid you're completely wrong," he told her with a pitying smile. "You see, I am a philosopher. I'm extremely self-reflective, sensitive to the views of others and with a highly tuned notion of my own impact. So if any of this had been happening, I'd have been the first to notice."

I tried something similar with a recently promoted course leader who didn't appear to be doing all that much leading. I proposed sessions in time management, delegating, dealing with complaints, communication skills. "But what's the point, Sally?" he asked, puzzled. "I'm already brilliant at all of those."

The trouble is that there's a fine line between self-belief and self-delusion. And it's quite dangerous if a leader teeters from one to the other. You might think you're a pretty straight guy, for example, while leading a country to war and killing more than a million people on the basis of faked evidence. Your bumbling charm and penchant for bikes and buses might lead you to assume you could actually be in charge of a great city. Who needs policies, after all, if you have sufficient belief in yourself?

On the whole, I think there's a lot to be said for a smattering of self-doubt to counter overweening self-belief, and for leaders who can occasionally admit when they're wrong; who are not always so positive about the right answer in a world of uncertainty and flux; who are able to contemplate the odd U-turn; who are sometimes troubled by demons haunting their dreams.

Best of all, though, are leaders who don't waste too much time analysing themselves at all, but instead concentrate on the job in hand. Amiably.

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