BLOG: Are personality tests helpful in your leadership journey?


“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.” Jim Rohn

Qin Shi Huang was China’s first Emperor. After uniting all the provinces, the Emperor became obsessed with immortality. After all, he fought so hard to achieve the power no one before him had ever achieved. That power needed to be preserved. He needed to live forever. His obsession ended in his death, believed to be triggered by consuming poisonous mercury pills he thought might extend his life. A historical irony.

The story of Qin Shi Huang teaches us two lessons: 1) that you shouldn’t ingest mercury pills because they will cause imminent death and 2) there is no universal mythical elixir/stone/solution to preserve your legacy, whether your legacy is a social enterprise or the creation of the Chinese empire.

Croesus, King of Lydia, waged war against the Persians. As was custom in the ancient Mediterranean empires, Croesus went to consult the famous Oracle of Delphi, Apollo’s sanctuary where priestesses would foretell the future. The Oracle stated: if Croesus went to war, a great empire will fall. Croesus assumes this means the Persian Empire. As you might have already predicted, it is his own empire that falls.

The story of Croesus teaches us two lessons: 1) that you shouldn’t rely on ancient Greek mythical Oracles for war strategy advice (that’s why you have generals and strategists) and 2) consulting a universal fits-all-sizes source will render highly subjective, highly interpretable results whether your question is will I destroy the Persians? Or do I have all the attributes required to be a leader?

Personality tests are the modern mythical elixir or the modern Oracle of Delphi. Everyone relies on them to discover the answer to who they are and what they are good at. But, the problem with personality tests is that they are highly standardised. Standard questions, standard results. Humans, on the other hand, are highly non-standard. Every single individual is unique. And, whilst, being placed in a box can be useful in beginning your process of cognosce te ipsum (knowing yourself), personality tests are only the tip of the iceberg.

The first Leadership field scholars of the 20th Century came about with the Trait Approach theory. This theory simply states that leaders are ‘great men’ with great qualities that are easily distinguishable. After all, it’s easy to think of leader figures, right? So, all that needs doing is draw a Venn diagram and see what traits they all have in common? Decades of research proved that leadership traits are not that easily distinguishable, that they are quite varied and that they are quite gender-biased (masculinity rates highly along the list of leadership traits).

One of the most famous personality models is the OCEAN model or Big 5 Personality Factors.

The OCEAN model is based on 4 positive attributes related to leadership and 1 negative attribute. The higher the positives the better, the lower the negative (neuroticism) the better. The OCEAN model is catchy and easy to understand, but is it useful to define the walls within which leadership can be confined in? One might pose the following questions: can’t introverts be leaders too? Where does being risk-taking and visionary fit within the model? Isn’t there a risk to being too agreeable? How does one define tendency to be depressed and anxious? Is this really a threat to leadership?

The concluding idea is box-ticking traits does not make one a leader, in the same way personality tests cannot confine you to one leadership style. Leadership is a process and a developmental opportunity. Standardised questionnaires can only offer you a subjective, interpretable result, which might change over time depending on how you develop your authentic leadership style.

An efficient way of using personality tests is as a basis for reflection. Use the standardised questions but apply real contextual scenarios from your life to them and analyse whether your answer might depend on the situation and specific factors. There are many Leadership related personality quizzes or tests. Some for free, some that require you to spend money on them such as Wealth Dynamics and the John Maxwell Leadership Assessment. But, you can start from something as simple and as popular as Myers Briggs Type Indicator and go from there.

But do not stop there! I have done the Myers Briggs Test 5 years ago and my results are not the same. People change, styles change, the way you hone and employ your traits changes. The challenge is to know where to start working on the type of leader you want to be. And, for that purpose, personality tests are a good start. You just need to push yourself to move from the result into reflection and after that into making a list of goals and an action plan to become the leader you want others to follow.

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.” Jim Rohn