Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban “bossy” may have stirred up plenty of heated responses, but it only scratched the surface of a much deeper discussion regarding how gender stereotypes shape the development of our personality. While we can debate whether behaviors labeled as “bossy” are expressions of untapped leadership potential, the truth is that expectations regarding how men and women should behave impact the development of both our personality preferences, and the interpersonal needs that affect leadership ability and style.
Here’s the twist. Characteristics associated with bossiness–ordering people around or being domineering–aren’t signs of good leadership. Yet, labeling girls who assert themselves may in fact lead to the negative behaviors we call “bossy” by suppressing cultivation of their natural leadership style. If people are raised with the expectation that they conform to certain stereotypes that don’t necessarily jive with who they really are as a person, they may develop habits and behaviors that work against their ability to persuade, inspire, or otherwise lead effectively.
According to the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test, everyone has a natural leadership style that correlates to their personality type, as determined by preferences for Introversion versus Extraversion, Sensing versus Intuition, Thinking versus Feeling, and Judging versus Perceiving.
The research division of my company, CPP, Inc, has found that the majority of those in leadership positions worldwide exhibit preferences for Thinking and Judging (versus Feeling and Perceiving). According to Linda Kirby and Katharine D. Myers in Introduction to Type, characteristics associated with “Thinking” include “analytical”, “solve problems with logic”, “reasonable”, “fair” and “tough-minded.” Likewise, Judging types are described as organized, systematic and appreciative of decisiveness.
When Thinking/Judging types (and all other types for that matter) are allowed to develop within their own natural preferences, they’re better equipped to exhibit these characteristics in the best possible way. The concept can be compared to left-handedness versus right-handedness. If you force a left-handed person to only write with their right hand, they’ll never reach their potential when it comes to penmanship.
Likewise, when people grow up being expected to conform to a certain set of behaviors, they may never get to fully develop their “best self.” When it comes to leadership style, they may exhibit a range of under-developed and counter-effective behaviors which will tend to alienate rather than inspire, persuade, or create consensus.
Interestingly, Patrick Kerwin observed in True Type Tales that women with an MBTI preference for Thinking (versus Feeling) are more likely to be called “aggressive.” Clearly in many cases this happens because of a cultural bias toward viewing of women in terms of the opposite “Feeling” preference characteristics. When people act outside of expectations placed on them by family or surroundings, it’s often met with disapproval. In other instances, it may be that they’re expressing their personality preferences in a less-developed way, because they have not been allowed to fully explore their own natural preferences. In other words, they’re expressing their natural personality preferences, but not necessarily in the most effective way because they’ve never been able to fully explore and develop them.
In either case, it indicates a major challenge for women in leadership. Female executives may face more negative reactions to behaviors typical for their type than a man in that same position–whether or not those behaviors are indicative of good leadership. The positive news is that, while women who serve in leadership or aspire to lead will likely face biases, identifying and cultivating their own personal leadership style will provide a means to bridge many barriers.
Regardless of whether or not you were encouraged to be yourself while growing up, you can still hone your own leadership style. One of the most powerful keys to developing effective leadership ability is self-awareness. First and foremost, know who you are. How do you prefer to think, act, socialize, process information, etc? Developing a style that reflects who you naturally are will allow you to project more confidence, competence and vision, and more readily engender respect and build trust with those that you work with. Psychometric assessments can provide a great starting point for this kind of self-exploration, by offering a qualitative analysis of various aspects of your personality that play into leadership style and ability.
Learn how to flex your own leadership style as needed in order to persuasively communicate your ideas and point of view to others who may have personality preferences quite different from your own. But, you can’t do that effectively until you fully understand what your own style is, embrace its potential, and address the pitfalls that come along with it.
Such self-awareness and “other-awareness” lay the foundation for clear communication and more productive work relationships–irreplaceable pillars of effective leadership. When Fortune listed its top 50 Leaders of 2014, it used terms like “persuade”, “global influence”, “move public opinion”, “sees beyond existing constraints”, and “rare capacity for bridging grassroots and elites” to describe the likes of Angela Merkel and Angelina Jolie.
By helping women of all ages understand and explore their own personality preferences–which may or may not reflect cultural norms–we enable them to develop their leadership style in the best, most effective way possible.
Jennifer Overbo is director of MBTI(r) product strategy for CPP, Inc. (CPP.com), the Myers-Briggs Company. With years of experience managing education and training products and services, she holds a M.Ed. in counselor education from the University of Virginia and a Bachelors in family and child development from Virginia Tech.