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Why the best leaders go against their nature

Rather than indulging in uncensored behaviours, leaders must go against their own nature to be effective

Psychologists have devoted decades of research to comparing competent and incompetent leaders, producing data-driven theories and robust tools to identify the essential ingredients of leadership potential. Unsurprisingly, a few personal qualities are consistently associated with superior leadership. Most notably: expertise, intelligence, curiosity, people skills, ambition, and integrity recurrently emerge in the profile of effective leaders while being frequently absent in those who fail to build and maintain high-performing teams.

That said, few leaders have the full package. There is often a tension between the different ingredients of leadership potential, such that the probability of having some of these qualities reduces the likelihood of having others. For example, leaders who are highly ambitious are often devoid of integrity (e.g., Sepp Blatter and Bernie Madoff). Leaders who are exceptionally intelligent may have deficits around people skills (e.g., Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos), and so on.

The same is true when it comes to specific qualities of leadership effectiveness. Thus the best leaders manage to balance out competing competencies, such as being entrepreneurial while also being pragmatic (Meg Whitman), or being inspirational while also being vulnerable (Angela Merkel). The more senior and powerful leaders are, the more versatile they need to be – the challenges they face are more diverse and complex, which requires a wider range of skills and dispositions.

While all this seems fairly intuitive, it is also inconsistent with several mainstream ideas in talent management. Consider the strengths-based movement, which suggests that leaders should not waste much time trying to address their flaws but focus instead on playing to their strengths. Since most things are counterproductive when taken to the extreme, it is hard to think of a less sensible strategy for developing leaders.

The main reason for being aware of one’s strengths is to avoid overdoing them, for overused strengths become weaknesses. In a similar vein, the concept of authenticity, which promotes the importance of 'being oneself,' is at odds with the actual development challenges that leaders face: rather than indulging in spontaneous and uncensored behaviours or eliminating any social inhibitions, what leaders must do to be effective is go against their own nature. Being perceived as inauthentic is quite problematic, but perhaps not as counterproductive as actually being oneself. People, including leaders, are most effective in their interpersonal relations when they are self-aware and carefully monitoring their reputation – how they affect others and how others perceive them. Yet this is only the first step towards effective relationship management; the second is to inhibit their natural tendencies and impulses, a distant third is to pretend they are authentic.

Accordingly, when leaders have been effectively coached (or self-coached) their 360s are quite disconnected from their personality assessments, in that they fail to reveal their inherent character flaws or limitations. Their natural strengths may have helped them emerge as leaders and succeed in their earlier stages, but to maintain high levels of performance and excel at the most senior levels they will have to develop new strengths, which in part means mitigating existing strengths, and unlearning old habits. In that sense, there is probably no bigger virtue in leaders than coachability, the willingness and ability to change.

The leadership development industry – a £14 billion market – tends to ignore this fundamental aspect of individual differences, assuming every high-potential leader will benefit from coaching and development. Yet unless coachability is itself regarded as a core ingredient of leadership potential, a great deal of time (and money) will be wasted on leaders who are unlikely to develop.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at UCL and Columbia University