Personality for Leadership

Øyvind Lund Martinsen

The best leaders are in the public sector and female leaders are better suited for leadership than men, indicates a study of nearly 3000 managers.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Effective leadership

Personality is almost as significant as intelligence when it comes to our ability to perform work tasks efficiently.

“For leaders, personality plays an even bigger role than for many other professions,” according to professors Øyvind L. Martinsen and Lars Glasø at the BI Norwegian Business School.

Research has identified five key traits that, overall, provide a good picture of our personality. This is called the five factor model.

The five traits in the five factor model are: emotional stability, extraversion (outgoing), openness to new experiences, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The personality traits are measured in degrees, from high to low.

Five characteristics of effective leaders

“International research studies show that the most skilled leaders achieve high scores for all five traits,” according to Martinsen and Glasø.

High scores in the five personality traits give us the following five characteristics of very effective leaders:

  • 1. Ability to withstand job-related pressure and stress (leaders have a high degree of emotional stability).
  • 2. Ability to take initiative, be clear and communicative (leaders are outgoing, with a high degree of extraversion).
  • 3. Ability to innovate, be curious and have an ambitious vision (effective leaders have a high degree of openness to new experiences).
  • 4. Ability to support, accommodate and include employees (effective leaders display a high degree of sociability).
  • 5. Ability to set goals, be thorough and follow up (effective leaders are generally very methodical).

More than 2900 Norwegian managers studied

Øyvind L. Martinsen and Lars Glasø have analysed data from an extensive leader survey that was most carried out in 2011 by the Administrative Research Institute (AFF) at the Norwegian School of Economics. The survey measured personality traits in Norwegian managers, work motivation and organisational commitment.

More than 2900 leaders provided complete responses to the personality measurements. Of these, more than 900 were women, more than 900 were senior management and nearly 900 came from the public sector.

The survey is based on the recognised theory of human personality, which describes personality as stable response patterns in thinking, emotion and behaviour.

Women score higher than men

Female leaders score higher than men in four of the five personality traits measured.

“The results indicate that, as regards personality, women are better suited for leadership than their male colleagues when it comes to clarity, innovation, support and targeted meticulousness,” according to the BI researchers.

The survey also indicates that female leaders have a somewhat stronger tendency to worry.

“Disregarding the worrying (emotional stability), it could be legitimate to ask whether women function better in a leadership role than their male colleagues,” according to Martinsen and Glasø.

Innovative public leaders

In their analyses, Martinsen and Glasø compared the personality traits of leaders in the private sector with leaders in the public sector. The results surprised the researchers, and might challenge our perceptions and stereotypes regarding leaders in the public sector.

Leaders in the public sector score higher in innovation, support and targeted meticulousness than their colleagues in the private sector. “Can the best leaders really be found in the public sector?”, the researchers wonder.

The analyses also show that senior management has greater potential for innovation and systematic and targeted behaviour in the leadership role than leaders at lower levels in the organisation.

Motivated for the job

Martinsen and Glasø also investigated whether there were any correlations between leaders’ personality and whether they have an internal or external motivation for the job.

  • Internal motivation is an expression of a genuine interest in the work, perceived opinion about the work and perception of independence.
  • External motivation is a form of motivation where we, for example, perceive that the work is governed by external rewards (e.g. bonus). Research has consistently found that such forms of motivation, in the best case, have an impact on simpler routine tasks.

The results show that high numbers in the five traits in the five factor model are associated with internal motivation. This means that those with a basic personal expertise for the leader role, are also those with a favourable internal motivation for doing the job.

The researchers find that external motivation is correlated with low emotional stability, low sociability and low regularity.

“Leaders with difficulties handling pressure, that have a lower tendency to support and that are less thorough and targeted, state that they have higher levels of external motivation in their job,” according to the researcher duo.

Work motivation is yet another reason to spend time identifying leader candidates that have personality traits that support becoming effective leaders.


Martinsen, Øyvind and Lars Glasø (2013): Personlighet og ledelse. I R. Rønning, W. Brochs- Haukedal, L. Glasø, & S. B. Matthiesen (ed.). Livet som leder. Lederundersøkelsen 3.0 (p.47-72). Fagbokforlaget: Bergen.

Text: Audun Farbrot, Head of Science Communication, BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 20. March 2014

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