Six Exceptions to the Ideal Leader Profile

               The Center for Applied Cognitive Studies has 20+ years of research on the traits of the ideal leader. Across situations, effective leaders tend to be calm, extraverted, visionary, appropriately tough, and focused. We label these Big Five traits N- (low Need for Stability), E+ (high Extraversion), O+ (high Originality), A- (low, but not too low, Accommodation), and C+ (high Consolidation). As is true of most rules, exceptions abound. Here are six relatively common situations that might call for a different level of one or more of these traits:

  1. Bench Strength. The leadership team has no one individual with all five ideal trait levels. However, each of the ideal trait levels is present in one or more members of the team. For example, Juan is introverted (E-), but Fran is extraverted (E+); Hans is reactive (N+), but Sarah is calm (N-), and so forth. In addition, the atmosphere on the team is such that no one person dominates, and each member has permission to exercise their trait strengths as needed.
  2. Associates at Opposite Extreme. When one’s reports tend to be the opposite of the ideal leader trait level, then having a leader who possesses the ideal level can create dissonance. For example, a team of bookkeepers (or lab workers, engineers, or researchers) is typically more introverted (E-). So as not to seem like a “bull in a china shop,” the ideal leader in this case would be more mid-level, or ambiverted (E=).
  3. Recent History. It is often the case that a leader’s predecessor overdid a particular behavior, and the team needs a leader that backs off that extreme somewhat. For example, when Richard Nixon left the White House, he left a bad taste for arrogant (A-) behavior. He was replaced by the meeker Gerald Ford, and later the nation elected an even more humble, altruistic (A+) leader in Jimmy Carter.
  4. Organizational Culture. This is similar to exception #2. When an organizational culture tends toward one extreme of a trait, that may affect what the culture needs from its leaders. For example, it is common for charitable or service-oriented organizations to have a more selfless, conflict-averse, and humble culture (A+). In this case, an A- leader would appear out of sync—the ideal leader would be in the mid-range, more of a negotiator (A=).
  5. Not a Strategic Business Unit. In a strategic business unit, the leader needs to set strategy, including new products, markets, pricing, etc. It requires a more visionary (O+) temperament. Business units that do not have to create strategy, but rather are implementers of strategy set by others, require a more tactical (O-) temperament.
  6. Skunkworks. Creative groups (advertising, R&D, entertainment) are typically composed of creative (O+) and spontaneous (C-) individuals. They need a leader who is somewhat less creative (O=) and suited to realistically evaluate the bundle of ideas coming from the skunkworks. Also, the leader here should not be so focused that they squelch the creative energy. Hence, a more mid-range score (C=) would be desirable—neither extremely spontaneous nor extremely disciplined, but balanced.

The key is understanding the leadership needs of the context. Start with the ideal leader profile, and then adjust as necessary for the situation. Paul Valery, the French poet, once wrote (but in French!): “Truly seeing something is forgetting the name of what one sees.” I interpret this to mean that we should let the ideal profile guide us initially, but then abandon it when the situation dictates.

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