In general, our personalities are pretty stable over our adulthood. Yes, we mature and big life events can alter us, but the building blocks of who we are as people are closer in stability to our eye color than our hair color.
This stability has been important to the science of employee selection. The underlying idea of giving any type of pre-employment or promotional test is that the knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic being measured is stable in that person for a given period of time so that it can be used to predict future performance. With skills, we assume that they will improve over time, so we look for those that a person has right now. For personality and cognitive abilities, we assume that a person will have those at a consistent level for many years and that these aptitudes can be used to develop specific skills, such as leadership.
When I conduct leadership workshops, I typically ask participants if leaders are born (e.g., do some people just have what it takes) or made (e.g., pretty much anyone can be an effective leader if given the right opportunities to develop). The conversation gets people thinking about what behaviors are necessary to lead (good communication, willingness to direct others, attention to details, etc.), which of those can be taught, and which cannot. Put another way, to become a professional basketball player, I can improve how well I shoot, but I cannot do too much about how tall I am.
But, what if we have the direction of trait to leadership wrong? What if the traits to become a leader don’t blossom until someone is given the chance to lead?
This study suggests that being promoted into a leadership position does change the conscientiousness factor of personality. Conscientiousness has been found to be a significant predictor of overall manager effectiveness. It’s an interesting idea in that it suggests that, for some people, we do not know if they have a sufficient amount of a trait that contribute to leadership success until after they become leaders.
As with all good research, it poses as many new questions as answers. For instance, were there increases in conscientiousness across the spectrum or only among certain groups (e.g., were there gains for those who already showed relatively high levels of conscientiousness, so the rich got richer)? Or, does it take a leadership experience to bring out conscientiousness in people who typically do not show it? Or, is leadership a tide that raises everyone’s conscientiousness?
Practically speaking, this is where the study has me thinking about assessing leadership:
1) Putting a re-emphasis on using performance on temporary assignments that involve leadership as part of the selection process in promoting people into supervisory positions.
2) Validating responses on personality tests that are taken after a person goes through a leadership role-play exercise or situational judgment test.
3) Re-thinking what aspects of personality indicate leadership potential (e.g., willingness to direct others and resilience) and broaden our list of things that are leadership skills to include some other aspects of personality (e.g., conscientiousness). We can then focus on selecting based on the former and training on the latter.
Some people have the right mix of attributes that allow leadership to come easily to them. As it turns out, some of those things become more apparent after a person has a chance to lead. This should encourage us to think about how we choose to evaluate leadership potential.