Most people think of leadership as a vocation, but it's really a psychological process—namely, the process of influencing others to put aside their self-serving agendas and cooperate for the common good of a group. Companies are just bigger, more organized groups than those groups where our earliest ancestors first developed the psychological patterns we still live with today.
One reason leadership is so fundamental is because it transforms a collection of talented individuals into a coordinated team—but only if it's done in a way that actually helps the team perform well together. And since the secret to performance is engagement, it takes an engaging leader to make that happen.
Extensive psychological research shows that engagement is the key driver of individual performance—in other words, the degree to which employees think, feel, and act in ways that show their commitment to the organization. Engaged employees are energized, proud, enthusiastic, and have positive attitudes at work. Organizations whose employees are engaged show higher returns on assets, are more profitable, and yield nearly twice the value of their shareholders compared to companies characterized by low employee engagement.
On the flip side, disengaged employees underperform, get bored, and show counterproductive work behaviors, like wasting time online, not showing up, and burning out. It's been estimated that disengaged employees cost U.S. companies more than $450 billion each year.
Clearly, engagement matters. But what do we know about engaging leaders? Although their style and expertise might vary, they tend to display some consistent personality characteristics. On average, they're more emotionally stable, ambitious, sociable, and interpersonally sensitive than others.
Emotional stability helps leaders stay cool under pressure so they can calm down their subordinates and keep everyone on track when things get tough.
Ambition helps leaders set challenging goals their teams need to reach for. That's especially important considering the reciprocal effects between engagement and performance. In other words, engaged employees perform better, but high-performing individuals will also be more engaged. It's either a virtuous circle or a vicious cycle depending on how well a leader leads.
Sociability helps leaders communicate with their teams, develop good networks, and put in the time it takes to nurture those relationships.
Interpersonal sensitivity causes leaders to focus more on others than on themselves. They're more altruistic and better attuned to their subordinates’ feelings.
Less effective leaders share traits that inspire disengagement in others. Being too excitable, cautious, leisurely, mischievous and attention-seeking can reduce your team's performance.
Excitability can cause disorder among employees due to a leader's erratic and unpredictable moods.
Caution is sometimes the prudent approach in certain situations, but overly cautious leaders can be frustrating because their risk-aversion makes them perpetuate the status quo even when things need to change.
Leisureliness causes leaders to be superficially polite and avoid conflict, but it can hold them back from offering constructive criticism. That, in turn, can create a passive-aggressive approach to management.
Mischievousness can occasionally be an asset as well. Clever leaders sometimes see opportunities others can't. In many cases, though, mischievous leaders appear charming to some, yet manipulative and dishonest to others. Their mixed reputations make them hard to trust.
Attention-seeking isn't usually the best trait in a leader, either. Those who want to focus more on themselves than their team members aren't likely to keep them engaged for long.
Of course, your personality doesn't determine your leadership style—only your leadership potential. The more traits you share with potentially disengaging leaders, the more effort it takes to overcome those tendencies. But you can still turn out to be a really effective leader.
As some studies have shown, it isn't just through their own behaviors that leaders impact team engagement. They can also do that by shaping their employees’ roles. When employees are starved for variety and autonomy, or when their tasks are trivial and seemingly purposeless, their engagement and performance can sink. It's up to leaders to offer regular feedback and guidance to counteract those things.
But it's a two-way street. Employees' own personalities determine how well they cope with lackluster work situations. The more conscientious and optimistic employees themselves can be, the better they'll tolerate both uninspiring jobs and bosses.
Ultimately, every leader can make a deliberate effort to become more engaging through their own actions and dispositions. It starts simply with being aware of your tendencies so you can understand their impact on others.
Most leaders fail because they don't perceive well enough how others perceive their behaviors. That's why the bulk of executive coaching interventions try to reduce the negative effects of leaders’ personalities and dial up the behaviors that actually do engage their teams.
It's also important to craft meaningful and rewarding jobs for your teams, assigning everybody to the right role and ensuring the teammates know what you want them to achieve and why. If that doesn't work, your next best bet is simply to hire people who are happy by temperament. That might not sound like much of a leadership technique, but it still takes a savvy leader to understand how attitude can make a real difference. Happy employees are actually likely to stay engaged for longer, even if their productivity stays the same.