Leadership is not—and should not be—a popularity contest. Yet a difficult personality will render ineffective even a highly talented executive. As a result, their potential contributions will go unexplored.
Consider a leader with world-class talent in a specific area, yet whose lack of interest in relating well to other people is seen as arrogant and argumentative. We’ve all met one or two of those: they shout first and ask questions later, badger, cajole, or simply aren’t good with people.
They get to their position of responsibility by “doing”—hard work and capability. Once there, colleagues steer clear of them whenever possible. If their work is thought to be indispensable, they are given a zone to operate, at least until they mess up—their mistakes, by the way, are treated more harshly than those of others. Yet in their own mind, they see themselves as “brilliant at what I do, and that should be enough. After all, it’s not a popularity contest.”
A negative prevailing opinion about them will indeed win out over time. Leadership research and practical experience show that relational behavior is well-correlated with sustainable achievement over time. The opposite is also true: relational difficulties will eclipse talent and derail even a brilliant leader.
How Personality Interferes With Achievement
While tenacity and talent can get someone to the table, it won’t keep them there.
Over time, as people avoid the leader in question, s/he becomes isolated and therefore starved for critical information needed to lead—after all, no one wants to volunteer news when history shows the repercussions will probably be negative. The executive is unable to coach / develop their team, because a strong relational handshake is needed for this. Their ability to collaborate is limited by their own lack of “playing well with others,” necessary for effective teamwork. As people step gingerly around the tough personality, communication dysfunction crops up, impairing overall effectiveness, delegation, and problem-solving. Maybe s/he has a heart of gold, but people will think otherwise.
S/he’s right that it’s not a personality contest, and likability is not critical. In fact, being in touch with one’s anger is important. Yet when one is consistently and strongly DISLIKED, and that goes unchecked, trust and respect falter and fail. It’s human nature.
The important caveat here is “if left unchecked,” as change IS possible.
Changing the Zebra's Stripes?
As a coach, I’ve frequently been asked if I’m in the business of attempting to change a Zebra’s stripes. The implication is that it’s a futile endeavor, as people tend not to change something as fundamental as personality. Interestingly, I am asked that much more frequently when the person has a difficult personality than when they get along well with others.
I wouldn’t be doing my work if I didn’t believe in (and hadn’t observed and participated in) people’s remarkable ability to change.
While an enlightened, self-aware, developed leader tends to change based on a hunger to be a life-long learner, for others, the driver is pain
For them, some type of painful inflection point can start the process of change: a significant professional failure, harsh or critical feedback from an authority or trusted source, an inability to get any further with an initiative or business, or a wake-up call realization that they’re hindering themselves and/or others. When there is engagement and commitment, coupled with smarts, change is not only possible, it is likely.
I’ve found that the relational personality problem is often rooted in mistaken—and changeable—belief—and is simply NOT the Zebra’s stripes. It’s something they’ve picked up along the trail, such as relating well to others is unimportant, it’s better to be respected for one’s work than liked or likable, that being liked is weak, that tough love is the way to go, etc. Assessment, coaching, and follow up can change the Zebra, and leave the stripes intact.
Personality is not the most important aspect of leadership, but it can be the most significant factor resulting in a brilliant person’s downfall. It’s not a good reason, particularly if they have the capability to change, for someone’s abilities to be held back from the world. What’s needed is a triggering event, whether from within themselves, or from external circumstances. In such cases I urge you to consider coaching or remediation rather than removal, as the Zebra may be well worth changing, even if the understandably jaded majority thinks otherwise.