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Leadership Traits: Balancing the Loud and the Quiet

March 30, 2018

Leadership traits

The stereotypical CEO in movies and TV is overwhelmingly loud. The reality for CEOs and other executives is more complex.

Recently, Russell Reynolds Associates and Hogan Assessments examined nearly 5 million psychological profiles of workers and executives. We found that the most successful individuals are those who can balance pairs of competing competencies—a model we call Leadership Span.

While there are many nuances, we often describe Leadership Span as having a loud side and a quiet side. The loud side is disruptive, risk taking, heroic, and galvanizing. The quiet side is pragmatic, reluctant, vulnerable, and connecting.

This model reveals that successful executives embody both ends of the spectrum: They are disruptive and pragmatic, risk taking and reluctant, heroic and vulnerable, galvanizing and connecting. Employees who can balance these pairs of traits are more likely to be promoted from senior management into the C-suite than their peers. And our latest research shows that the quiet behaviors—rarely displayed by stereotypical CEOs—are directly linked to high levels of integrity and resilience.

Lessons for rising executives

A natural next step for rising executives is to understand how to leverage these insights for success. These questions will help:

What if I’m just naturally more loud, or more quiet? Don’t worry, few people are naturally strong in all the loud and the quiet traits. If you’re a talker, be more intentional about listening. If you’re a risk-taker, practice finding reasons to hold back. If you tend to be the bulletproof hero, challenge yourself to share weaknesses or past failures.

On the flip side, if you’re more naturally quiet, are you focusing too much effort on being pragmatic, and not enough on being disruptive? Are you great at connecting with individuals, but neglect the importance of galvanizing groups to action?

It’s the combination of loud and quiet that results in the level of performance necessary to successfully lead an organization over the long term.

Do I need to downplay my strengths to create a balance? No. Loud traits and quiet traits are equally, and incredibly, important. We wouldn’t tell you to stop doing the things that make you successful, but rather to focus on intentionally bringing out traits that help to create more balance and strengthen you as a leader.

Can I build a team around me that has the traits I’m missing? Yes and no. You absolutely should build a well-balanced team of people who have both loud and quiet traits. That balance will help your organization grow and thrive and will make you successful in the near term. But if you’re not able to bring both loud and quiet traits to work yourself, your career will likely stall out below your aspirations.

What’s the connection between loud, quiet, and executive integrity? We took Leadership Span data from 1,000 executives and paired it with Hogan 360° feedback, which asks managers, peers, and direct reports about their perceptions of the executive’s integrity. Executives who are perceived as being high in integrity also score high on the ability to connect with others, the ability to be vulnerable, and the ability to be reluctant when it comes to taking risks (all three of which are quiet traits).

At the same time, perceptions of integrity show almost no relationship to scores on three other Leadership Span factors: the ability to galvanize troops into action, having a high propensity to take risks, and the ability to be disruptive (all loud traits).

It’s important for rising executives to look beyond the stereotypical leader—bold, aggressive, lacking in self-doubt—and realize that the most successful real-life executives are the ones that can balance themselves across both loud and quiet traits.

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About The Author

Dean Stamoulis provides guidance to boards about CEO selection and succession at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. He also consults with CEOs about how to build excellent leadership teams. In addition, Stamoulis leads the firm’s Center for Leadership Insight. The center’s focus is on sharing fresh observations and solutions about C-suite leadership challenges and opportunities. Stamoulis is based in Atlanta.

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