Does Your Leadership Style Need a Change?

Research shows that a CEO’s personality trickles down through an organization. Whether that personality helps address an association’s goals is another matter.

A report on some new leadership research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business ends on a sobering note. “Even though CEOs are aware of culture,” Stanford GSB professor Charles O’Reilly says, “the vast majority of them are not particularly good at managing culture.”

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, the cliche goes, and culture apparently never goes hungry: According to a survey O’Reilly conducted, 92 percent of 1,300 executives said “improving their firm’s culture would increase its value.” The implication is that the culture needs improvement, and O’Reilly points to some notable examples of companies that have had dysfunctional, narcissistic leadership, like Theranos and Uber. But you don’t need to be a catastrophically poor leader to have culture issues.

The perfect combination of CEO personality traits does not exist.

One of the most substantial challenges, O’Reilly has found, is that often the CEO’s temperament is misaligned with the organization’s goals. As he explains: “The intuition is that culture and strategy need to fit, and therefore personality needs to fit as well.” Companies that need to be detail-oriented and cost-conscious, he explains, won’t benefit much from a leader who emphasizes creativity; introverted leaders will have a harder time at places that need to prioritize innovation.

This is a challenge because inevitably, O’Reilly says, the CEO’s temperament will trickle down, creating an organization that mirrors one of the “big five” personalities attributed to execs: openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism. Of course, no leader possesses only one of those traits. But the challenge for leaders is to determine which of those traits they tend to present, and whether they’re fit-for-purpose for the organization’s goals. This doesn’t happen as often as you’d hope, O’Reilly suggests, because leaders are busy. Between day-to-day management and long-term planning, there’s less time to contemplate fussier matters about how culture, personality, and strategy intersect.

One way to get around that: Treat culture realignment as an organizational goal like you would your membership and revenue targets. Starting that process can mean auditing how your culture manifests itself, and here leaders might take a cue from O’Reilly’s research methodology: He and his team analyzed earnings-call data alongside employee reviews on Glassdoor.

Associations don’t do earnings calls like corporations do, and many aren’t sizable enough to draw a meaningful sample of employee reviews. But leaders still communicate plenty: In memos, speeches, newsletters, and all sorts of messaging. And they draw lots of feedback from employees and members, both formally and informally. It’s worth taking a look at that and asking: What values and attitudes are being promoted? And, are those the ones you want to promote?

O’Reilly’s research demonstrates that the tone from the top matters: The CEO’s personality and the company’s culture tend to be in close alignment. Making changes doesn’t mean doing things in one right way. As the Stanford GSB report puts it, “the perfect combination of CEO personality traits does not exist.” Nor does it require a leader to fake attitudes they don’t truly possess.

But let’s assume that an association leader is passionate about their organization’s mission. To make changes, that same leader can be equally passionate about highlighting the parts of their personality that help meet those goals.

Do you adjust your leadership personality to better address your association’s needs? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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