A prominent Silicon Valley psychologist describes the drivers and derailers of leadership.
Ronald A. Warren
You have attributed leaders’ personalities to some major corporate catastrophes, including the downfall of AIG and issues at Apple. How does this happen?
The actions and interactions between individuals have a huge impact on outcomes in the workplace, and this is played out every day, in every profession—sometimes with extraordinary results and other times with disastrous results. We have found that personality style has a greater impact on leadership effectiveness than IQ or educational achievement.
It’s never about one individual trait; it’s about combinations of personality traits. We have identified the 13 most important traits, and it is the different combinations of them that can be wonderful or dangerous.
Tell us what happened at AIG.
The AIG story is consistent with what we know about ‘why planes crash’ and ‘why medical errors occur’: In 75 per cent of cases, it’s human error. There are breakdowns of leadership, teamwork and communication that stress people and systems — and we see the same patterns in the financial arena. Before the global financial crisis hit, a guy named
Joe Cassano was overseeing AIG’S Financial Products group, selling hundreds of billions in credit protection in the form of CDS’S [credit default swaps]. He was a real workaholic and known to be very aggressive, stubborn and selfabsorbed. In our framework he would rank high on Rigidity, Hostility and Need to Control.
People around Cassano could see that AIG was invested too much in these risky mortgages, and they repeatedly asked him to stop. But he was convinced he was right. He actually berated people when they challenged him. ‘Look how many people are getting houses!’, he would say; ‘Now, even a janitor can buy a $500,000 house’ — which obviously didn’t make much sense.
When AIG needed a bailout from the U.S. government — to the tune of $182 billion — it wasn’t because the entire company went south. Some areas of AIG were actually doing well. The issue was that the head of this key division refused to listen to feedback from his team and failed to recognize the power of collective intelligence.
Your framework groups the 13 personality traits into four categories or ‘dimensions’. Please describe them.
There are two dimensions that generate high performance. The first is Social Intelligence and Teamwork. Traits that fall under this dimension include Openness to Feedback, Helpfulness and Sociability. These people value the input of others and have decent interpersonal skills. The second dimension associate with high performance is Grit and Task Mastery. This is a combination of three traits: Achievement Drive, Conscientiousness and Innovation. People who rank high on these dimensions will become bored if they don’t have challenging work. At their core, they are driven to achieve and innovate.
We also identified some behaviours that lower performance, and they fall under two dimensions: Dominance and Deference. People who rank high on Dominance tend to be inflexible, self-absorbed, controlling and competitive. Some — like Joe Cassano — have a high degree of Hostility as well, which is the ultimate self-absorption trait and the trait most highly correlated with low performance. When those who rank high on Hostility see that the world isn’t behaving the way they want it too, they get aggravated and blame the world.
The second derailing dimension is Deference, which entails being approval-seeking, passive, avoiding conflict and having a low-risk orientation. A high degree of Deference is negatively correlated to leadership effectiveness, but there are positive aspects to it, too. While these individuals prefer that others take the lead, they also show high levels of humility and loyalty.
How prevalent are these dimensions, and how do they fit together?
I want to be clear that this is not about being smart. All of the people we studied in developing the framework were highly intelligent. They were all program participants from either Harvard Business School executive programs or Yale’s CEO College. These people didn’t get to the top of their organizations by not being too sharp. The issue is that many of them tended to believe that being smart was enough of a competitive advantage for them — which is a common false notion, by the way.
We have found that about 75 per cent of professionals have one or more derailers to contend with, and only 20 per cent have that highly-desired ‘top-heavy’ combination of high grit and high EQ, without any prominent derailers. These individuals are rated in the top 10 per cent of
People who rank high on Dominance tend to be inflexible, self-absorbed, controlling and competitive.
leadership due to exceptional abilities to drive projects and results and they work well with others. Their feedback raters say things like, ‘The best boss I’ve had in my career’; ‘A real role model’; and ‘She really is that good and handles it all with ease and grace.’
What does it mean to have a ‘mixed effectiveness profile’?
These people have prominent Grit or Social Intelligence and prominent Deference and/or Dominance traits. We call them ‘right siders’ and ‘left siders’, and in terms of leadership effectiveness, they can be described as one dimensional. They excel with either people or projects, but not both.
The traits on the left side of the framework are related to Grit and Dominance. When these are combined, you get a hard-driving confident, sometimes arrogant person with a lot of belief in themselves and poor social skills. A classic left sider would be Steve Jobs. When I was developing my first assessment, we were invited to use it on Apple’s executive team. Everyone did the assessment — except for Jobs. He refused to participate or make any effort to resolve some of the team’ and firm’s issues — many of which were a genesis of who he was as a person, as a personality.
We juxtapose Jobs with Steve Wozniak, a classic ‘right sider’. Wozniak was a high-grit guy, but also high on Deference. He was innovative and achievement orientated in terms of products, but he never embraced the capitalist model like Jobs — which in business, is pretty important. Wozniak was very deferential. His father was an engineer, and the mindset was that ‘engineers do great things in the world, and leaders are suits — they just take advantage of what engineers do’. He didn’t want to be in a leadership role, so he never confronted Jobs when he was being really domineering and hostile with people.
You created the LMAP 360 assessment tool to include both self-ratings and ratings from multiple colleagues. Why was that so important?
Self-ratings are notoriously dubious, due to a range of selfassessment biases. People overestimate their own qualities and abilities in relation to the same qualities and abilities of others. For instance, the vast majority of us believe that we are excellent drivers and have great social skills; clearly, that is not the case.
We’re most interested in how behaviours — whether they be drivers or derailers — affect performance. When I started out in the field, I felt it was critical to know about how other people experience you, and how it impacts job performance. I’m not saying that self-concept doesn’t matter, but it isn’t anywhere near as related to outcomes and performance. Some leaders do have insight into how their behaviour is perceived by others, but many do not. That’s why we obtain feedback from 15 colleagues of the leader being assessed.
How do you advise people to react if they get bad news from an assessment?
We don’t actually position feedback as being good or bad. Instead, we position it as ‘what is effective and what is ineffective.’ People go through all kinds of trials and tribulations on their way to becoming an executive, and certain habits develop. They don’t make you a good or bad person — but they are more or less effective for the job you’re in. We’ve studied aviation accidents closely, and there are often miscommunications and cases of people being offended or not responding to direct questions. These are things you see in meetings every day, in every organization, but when it adds up in the realm of aviation, it can lead to a catastrophe. We have also studied how this leads to medical errors, industrial accidents and turnover in organizations.
If you don’t have a perfect profile, you’re what we call normal. Sometimes I show my profile to a group but I don’t tell people it’s me. I’ll say, ‘Okay, what do you think of this individual’s profile?’ After they’ve torn me to shreds, I put up my face up on the screen with my eyes blacked out. The fact is, human beings are built with derailers. Some of them are probably genetically driven and some result from our experiences.
Of course, I also have some assets, but like most people, I’m muddling through life. When people appreciate that, it builds up their propensity for humility, and then they can look at their feedback more openly.
Do you find that most people are open to the feedback and want to get better?
It’s challenging to hear about what we’re not good at, and people aren’t great at giving negative feedback, either. That’s why we try to explain to people why they should care. How is this behaviour impacting how you execute on your job? We appeal to people’s insight and intellect around, ‘Hey there is an upside for me in addressing this; it’s not intended as punishment’. Most people are interested in improving their performance, and if you’re like most people, there’s room to improve.
When an entire organizational culture embraces improvement, we’ve seen it lead to a significant morale change. The goal is not to become a master of behaviours that do not come naturally, but to improve enough to not be working from a deficit position.
How changeable are we?
Many 20th century psychologists believed that personality was ‘hard wired’ and unchangeable. Lay people who adopt this perspective do so to their detriment, as the belief provides a ready excuse for not managing one’s externalized behaviour. Even if you can’t stop feeling the urge to interrupt, stop the behaviour, please. We compare modifying such behaviours to picking low hanging fruit, because they are the most easily modified and controlled.
Advocates of strengths-based training discount the value of improving behavioural weaknesses. They argue that, at best, improvement leads to average performance in that particular behaviour. But behaviours interact, so replacing a deficit with even average skills can have a huge synergistic impact. Psychologist Ronald A. Warren is the author of Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership (Mcgraw Hill Education, 2017). He developed the LMAP 360 assessment used by Harvard Business School, Yale University and other leading organizations.