Race to the Top: Traits that Propel and Derail Senior Leaders

Sep 13, 2016
7 Min Read

Traits that Propel and Derail Senior Leaders

Are you equipped to be a leader today? These insights could help you up your game.

According to DDI’s new global study of 15,000 executives in 18 countries, there are certain personality traits and attributes that make it more and less likely that a person will succeed in a 21st century business world leadership role.

The warp speed of business has hastened the pace of leaders being thrust into roles of increasing scope and responsibility whether they are ready or not. As the cost of failure increases, predicting who can navigate these transitions demands an evalua­tion of personality factors that influence how leaders will respond to vastly greater challenge, pressure, and visibility.

One interesting section of the DDI report looks at hard-to-develop, positive traits (enablers) that grease leader success, and dysfunctional traits (derailers) that tend to trip them up. DDI examined these across three leader levels – strategic executive, operational, and mid-level. At each successive level, enablers were: exhibit stronger ambition and resilience and interpersonal sensitivity. Although the highest ranking executives are generally less vulnerable to them, the list of derailers was a bit longer:

  • Volatility: displayed as inconsistency, distractibility and moodi­ness. This trait threatens credibility for building trust through predictable actions and consistent follow-through.
  • Perfectionism: the need to micromanage work or delay decisions in pursuit of a 100 percent outcome.
  • Approval Dependent: senior leaders are sometimes ruled by the need for personal reinforcement and pleasing others.
  • Arrogance: expressed as self-importance or insensitivity, or the need to oversell their own importance, or influence others through intimidation.
  • Risk Aversion: an unwillingness to make bold moves to drive the business forward.
  • Attention Seeking: the desire to take center stage risks overshadowing those whose hearts they need the most. This lack of humility compromises trust.

Leaders who are successful enough to be considered for a CEO position are unlike other high-performers. In order to learn how CEO candidates are unique in their response to leadership challenges and if their per­sonal attributes set them apart, DDI also profiled 243 CEO finalists, in 48 organizations, and benchmarked them against its larger database.

What CEO Candidates Do to Excel

  • Obsess over execution and results: They stay laser focused on outcomes and demand specifics on how results will be achieved.
  • Fixate on customer needs: They embody the customer persona so that they can diagnose how business plans will meet customer needs now and in the future.

How CEO Candidates Are Wired

  • Intensely competitive, confident, and emotionally resilient: While most executives share these traits, they are even more pronounced among those preparing for a CEO position.
  • Craving of attention: Most personality derailers, such as arrogance or volatility, decline in prevalence for CEO candidates. Not so for attention-seeking. The top job attracts those who enjoy being noticed for their talents and charm.
  • Creative OR pragmatic: Twenty-one percent of CEO candidates are creative, conceptual strategists, and 29 percent are practical, no-nonsense operators. Only 8 percent effectively balance both.

Where CEO Candidates Struggle

  • Default to the short-term: The so-called “strategic plans” these leaders make are often not very strategic at all. They solve oper­ational dilemmas, but few generate effective, long-range growth strategies. So, meaningful organizational change is rare.
  • Treat talent as an afterthought: Their most rigorous planning seldom focuses on talent. Coaching is diplomatic but is often not goal oriented. Talent development is perfunctory, not strategic.
  • Experience difficulty in being inspirational: When trying to rally the organization behind their plans, most leaders turn reflexively to financial projections. Leading from the heart doesn’t come naturally for them.

My Two Cents

Although the study doesn’t necessarily say this, I’d add that successful CEO candidates go a step beyond confident. Some people portray confidence, but they are actually practicing “fake it ‘till you make it.” Many CEOs, however, genuinely believe they are the best. They perceive themselves as being highly qualified and a great catch for any organization. This naturally high opinion of themselves leads to some of the other traits mentioned in the research, such as emotional resilience and attention-seeking. And, it’s difficult to be inspirational when you’re focused internally.

I believe that effective CEOs can be creative and pragmatic, by the way. Perhaps this result is simply telling us that the best CEOs aren’t exceptional or “off the charts” at both.

These findings, for the most part, ring true for every senior leader with whom I’ve ever worked. If they are accurate, then I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. What about you? (Comments are in the social sharing bar to the left).

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