June 16, 2014
What’s Your Leadership Type?

The personality of the individual leader has long been regarded as a source of corporate success. In a fast-changing world, though, the ability to harness the various personality types throughout the organization is the hallmark of success – and the essence of ecological leadership.

Are you a visionary or an aggressor? Maybe you’re a secret safety-firster or an overt bottom-liner? These are just some of the common personality traits of successful leaders that have been identified and defined by management research over the years. The theory is that by understanding your type, you can identify your strengths and improve on your weaknesses to become a more fully rounded leader. Many CEOs work with executive coaches to do just that.

However, when we look at the bigger corporate picture we see that this focus on the personality type of individual leaders may not necessarily create organizations able to address today’s most pressing business problems. Executives are struggling with two primary issues. The first is how best to plan for growth in a still uncertain economy and making adjustments to current business models to allow for unexpected trends.

The second related challenge is what we call the ‘strategy-execution gap.’ According to a recent survey by Strategy&, nearly 45 percent of polled executives said some parts of their organization did not understand or were actively resisting strategy, while the same number worried that their company’s strategy created too many, often conflicting, priorities for people to work on. Equally familiar are the surveyed executives who worry that their strategy fails to “leverage our most important capabilities, assets, or resources across the entire organization.”

These challenges illuminate a simple truth: in a market that’s constantly changing, organizations that are willing and able to adjust are the ones that will be successful. In this environment the personality type of the individual leader has less of an impact than the right combination of personal attributes that are distributed within the organization as a whole.

This is the backdrop to the concept of ecological leadership, which is gaining credence among executive coaching professionals – as well as the leaders they work with. Not to be confused with environmental or ‘green’ leadership (an entirely separate discipline), ecological leaders see their organization as a living, breathing and interconnected ecosystem. Their own skill-set and personality type is a vital element of this ecosystem, but it cannot thrive without the contribution of others, however tangential that contribution might first appear.

The task for ecological CEOs is to recognize their own personality type and the unique set of strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the table and understand how these align with the mission, vision, values and strategy of the company. They then need to identify the functions, duties and responsibilities that need to be accomplished in order for the company to move forward. But instead of adopting the ‘single leader’ model in which one individual assumes responsibility for all these tasks, the ecological CEO considers who the best person for each aspect would be.

In the ecological leader model, tasks are ascribed not by job title but by skill-set. When observing organizations, it becomes clear that job titles can in fact hinder progress since they create artificial silos of capabilities, passions and motivations. Certainly they prevent companies from finding and leveraging the most valuable skill-sets or interests that reside within the organization.

When those artificial barriers are removed, then paths are opened up for organizations to create ‘best-of-breed’ teams to work on specific projects or take responsibility for specific areas of corporate development. In a fluid ecological model, individuals gravitate towards the tasks that are best suited to them, leaving tasks for which they are less well suited to other personality types within the organization. As a result, the company itself undertakes projects or develops strategy best suited to its own culture and vision.

Implementing an ecological model is almost always an iterative process that starts with a specific problem that needs to be addressed rather than attempts to transform the business overnight. Many companies have started by establishing a committed task force and giving it the freedom and resources to come up with a solution. It may be that visionaries and envelope pushers are assigned to the task force, for example, while generals, controls freaks and political animals continue to run the business. Once the task force completes its initial mission, it can be re-absorbed into the business. Meanwhile the market has produced another challenge to be addressed and the process continues.

It should be apparent that the ecological model is disruptive. It flattens hierarchical structures and requires a level of collaboration that can be alarming. It gives everyone a stake in the success of the company: strategy that is developed behind closed doors and dictated to employees is unlikely to succeed. It’s also easier to implement in new companies where hierarchies have not yet had time to develop and become entrenched.

But it’s also incredibly liberating. It empowers people to start doing things that a leader might never have imagined. It brings ideas to the table that the CEO has never considered.

For many, this represents a significant departure from long-embedded ways of thinking. We have developed a business culture that encourages each leader to think that they can and should do everything. Interestingly, the executives survey by Strategy& who said that their company is “currently winning in the market” were also the most likely to say that success is attributable to “great leadership” or “powerful and distinctive capabilities.”

But these expectations – real and perceived – can actually damage businesses trying to operate in a rapidly changing world. No single leader has all the attributes needed to manage today’s complex challenges and those “the power and distinctive capabilities” are unlikely to reside in a single individual. Instead the true ecological leader recognizes his or her own strengths and weaknesses and complements them with those of the people around to create an organization that remains fit for purpose – whatever that purpose might be.

Key steps to ecological leadership

  1. Identify your own strengths, skills and attributes – and your own weaknesses
  2. Identify what capabilities your organization needs in order to achieve its goals
  3. Bring complementary skill-sets and personality types into your leadership team
  4. Get to know your staff and find your hidden pools of talent
  5. Create opportunities and encourage engagement, interaction and debate
  6. Don’t pigeon-hole people: either by job title or perceived personality type
  7. Empower people, give them responsibility and hold them accountable
  8. Value difference as an asset
  9. Flatten hierarchies and develop flexible structures, teams and task forces
  10. Develop corporate strategies based on your company’s real and unique capabilities

Common personality types

Each personality type brings strengths and weaknesses to the table. The ideal combination of types depends on the nature of your organization, the work you do and the direction of your company. Do you recognize any of the following? Do you have the right mix for your business? And are they in the right place to make the most of their talents?

The Aggressor. Frequently results-driven, the aggressor shines in areas like deal making and sales, but can respond to stressful situations by being overly assertive.

The Safety-Firster. Motivated by safety and security, safety first-ers may be resistant to change but are generally skilled at keeping their heads down and performing predictable tasks brilliantly.

The Political Animal. The Political Animal is fantastic at exchanging favors in the organization in order to find scarce resources and get things done, but may deflect blame when things don’t go according to plan.

The Control Freak. Relentlessly attentive to detail and getting exactly the right outcome, the control freak’s micromanagement tendencies can also set people up to fail and discourage initiative.

The Visionary. No-one beats a visionary when it comes to inspirational vistas of future success and outstanding results. Unfortunately, someone else usually has to develop the action plan and take responsibility for practical matters.

The Bottom-Liner. This very driven executive speaks quickly and concisely, has little time for lengthy analysis, makes gut decisions and wants results yesterday. Patience and tolerance may be in short supply.

The General. The old-school, command and control general provides clear direction and clarity of purpose, but often on a need-to-know basis that obscures the bigger vision and alienates his ‘soldiers’.

The Envelope Pusher. A high tolerance for risk, the envelope pusher is often an early adopter of new technologies, and is frustrated when others don’t move as quickly as he does. Tomorrow’s challenge is often more interesting than today’s.

Victor Harms
Victor Harms, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Bellevue University. He teaches Human Services, Counseling and Executive Coaching courses in the College of Arts and Sciences. He has served as a board member of the Nebraska Counseling Association (NCA) and currently serves on the board of the Graduate School Alliance for Executive Coaching (GSAEC). Victor earned his Master of Arts in Agency Counseling from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and his Doctor of Philosophy in Family Science from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Dr. Harms is a Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner (LIMHP). He is a certified coach through the Coach Training Alliance. He is also a nationally credentialed as a Board Certified Coach. Dr. Harms is the CEO of FOCUS C3, a private practice agency that specializes in counseling, coaching and consulting.