Many leaders are by nature ‘Type A’ personalities. You know them. Passionate, driven, competitive and outgoing. The likely got to where they are because of some of these traits, and their ability to continue to lead has a lot to do with their continuing use these traits. Many of the best leaders today, and in the past, were die hard Type A personalities such as Steve Jobs, Dwight Eisenhower and General Norman Schwarzkopf.
Now this isn’t to say that effective leaders can’t also be a ‘Type B’ personality. I have worked with several leaders over the years who exhibited the more laid back, personable style of a Type B, and they have been tremendously effective in their careers, and their teams can be some of the most loyal you will ever see. In fact, some very famous leaders in history were Type Bs such as Winston Churchill and Harry Truman.
Whether you consider yourself an ‘A’ or a ‘B’, the reality is that to be effective as a leader, you really need to be a combination of the two. Without a smart blend of motivation, drive and competitive edge, you are likely to struggle with holding your team and organization accountable. But, if you are missing the ability to be laid back at the appropriate time, to be a relationship builder, and to know when to back off of the need to win at all costs, you will undoubtedly struggle to maintain a strong and cohesive team.
Not known to many is how these ‘types’ came to be. The actual ‘Type A’ personality was originally a designation identifying those people who had a higher risk of coronary heart disease. In the 1950s, two cardiologists, Dr. Meyer Friedman and Dr. Ray Rosenman, began an eight year study of healthy men (yes, just men….it was the 1950s!) between the ages of 35 and 59. They theorized that those men with a personality that was more impatient, and even chronically angry, had a higher chance of developing coronary artery disease (CAD). They decided on the study when they noticed that the chairs in their office were unusually worn on the front edge of the seat instead of in the middle or back. They postulated that this was because the typical patient they were seeing was more ‘on edge’ (pardon the play on words) and anxious and tended to sit forward in their seat, ready to spring at a moments notice.
During the study, they asked subjects who were more prone to be more driven and always feeling pressed for time, to do things that were against their nature. For example, they asked their subjects to leave their watches at home, to pick longer lines at checkout, and to spend more time talking with people. It was infuriating to the Type A personality, but quickly helped the researchers to make the correlation to those who had CAD. They were able to make a connection between the personality type and the ultimate diagnosis of CAD in these individuals, and labeled them as ‘Type A’, a name that sticks with us today.
So, while leaders who are more impatient, focused and competitive tend to be results driven, they also have a greater risk of long-term impacts on the organization in poor health and the stress they may cause others. In fact, Friedman was quoted as saying that “Type A personalities who succeed do so in spite of their impatience and hostility.” Ouch!
But what of the ‘Type B’? Is their personality and reduced likelihood of health problems a good thing, and can it make a more effective leader? With all of the baggage that comes with being labeled a Type A, there is as much baggage, if not more, for those who are Type B. Especially in the business world.
A Type B personality has a tendency to be more laid back in their approach, and tend to enjoy a more steady pace. When they lose, they also tend to avoid the mental and physical stress that their counter Type A feels, and don’t necessarily view competition as something to be won, but can be happy with the competition itself. But in the world of dollars and cents, winning is everything, and losing is failure, right? So, being a Type B must be a liability.
Not so fast. Think back to the origination of this personality designation. Remember, the study was conducted to find out the correlation between a person’s ‘traits’ and their health. Ultimately, the study found that those who got designated as a Type A were more than twice as likely to develop CAD than a Type B. But further study found that it was one specific trait of the Type A that seemed to impact this more than any other. Hostility. So, maybe being a Type A is good for business, but certain traits such as hostility have an impact not only on your health, but the health of the organization as well.
I once worked for a Type A. He was everything that you could think of in a Type A. He was focused, competitive, anxious for resolution to issues, and time pressured. He worked long hours, often well into the night, and wore that as a badge of honor, making sure others knew how hard he worked. But it was one trait that made him most unpleasant. He had a short fuse, and you really weren’t sure when he was going to go off. His seemingly unpredictable manner made him someone that you tended to walk softly around, and even when you didn’t think you were involved, he might pull you in to blow up on you just because you were nearby. To say the least, this was an unpleasant job, and the culture of the team matched it. In short, he was hostile, and the workplace was a mess because of him.
What does all this mean to you as a leader? If you are a Type A leader in all its glory, what can you learn from a Type B that will make you more successful? Here are 5 areas that you might consider focusing on as a Type A to make you more effective in your role.
- Emotions (Go with the Flow)– Whether you want to admit it or not, as a Type A, you are more likely to become agitated when things don’t go your way. You likely find that it is much easier for people to ‘push your buttons’, and when plans don’t work as you expected, you are more likely to show your displeasure in a verbal and visual way. Yelling, snarky comments, and even facial expressions of disapproval only serve to alienate your team, and ultimately become your ‘legacy’. Your ability to control your emotions and be more measured in your response to bad news will go a long way to improving the culture of your team.
- Competitiveness (Enjoy the competition, not the win)– Competition is healthy and good for the organization. In fact, I would say that incorporating a sense of competition and urgency in your organization is necessary and important. Without it, people become comfortable and lose their drive to improve and succeed. But, when competition comes at the expense of the people working in the organization, it can quickly become toxic. Pitting team members against each other, comparing their results in public forums, and focusing on a pecking order amongst the team doesn’t work unless they are all Type A personalities as well. In fact, this can backfire and actually make the team more complacent. Not everyone is motivated the same way, so you have to be sure to adjust your style and level of competitiveness to the individual. Without it, you can come across like the school yard bully who wants to win at all costs. No one likes to play with a bully.
- Organization (Stop overcommitting) – Type A personalities are classic multi-taskers. Because of the sense of urgency and desire to win, they can take on more than is reasonable, and are more likely to do the work themselves instead of delegating. In fact, multiple studies indicate that multi-tasking (task switching to be more accurate) actually makes you less effective and more prone to error. One study conducted by Dr. Ira E. Hyman from Western Washington University found that a simple task like talking on the phone while walking significantly reduced the ability of a person to recognize their environment and those around them. In their study, they targeted people who were walking and talking on the phone, and placed a clown on a unicycle in the vicinity, then asked them if they noticed it while walking by. Less than 25% of the people talking on the phone while walking noticed the clown, compared to over 70% of those who were just walking alone, or walking and talking with a friend. The lesson? If you are Type A, and prone to fill your calendar thinking you can multi-task, you are more likely to miss important details, and certainly likely to miss the people that work for you as well. Reduce your urge to multi-task, and be present in the moment.
- Standards (Learn when ‘good enough’ is good enough) – One thing is sure about Type A personalities. They tend to err towards perfection, and their internal drive to compete and win often leads them to think of how they might have been just a bit better, or what they could have done differently to win next time. Improvement is a great thing, and I encourage everyone to learn from the past, and make improvements for the future. But, when the standards are so high that no one can meet them, it can have a negative effect on the person, and the organization they lead. By never seeing results as good enough, or acceptable, you are setting the organization up for frustration and failure. As a Type A, you have to learn what things need perfection (financials or taking care of patients for example) and what things can get by with good enough.
- Listening (There might just be another way) – Another common characteristic of a Type A is their sense that they have already figured out things and that others process too slowly. You’ve likely seen this manifested in the person who is fidgety, and tends to interrupt other people’s thought with nods, ‘uh huh’s and other forms of interruption. Essentially, they are processing things and are trying to send the message that it’s time to move on, and they have a decision in mind. But, as a Type A, it’s critical that you learn to listen closely, and leverage the knowledge of those around you. While speed and impatience might be your hallmark, quick decisions aren’t always in the best interest of you or the team. Taking the time to be a bit more deliberative and thoughtful will only serve to make your team feel heard, and allow you to make a more informed decision.
While this post was focused heavily on the Type A personality, it’s important to point out that Type Bs aren’t perfect either. The tendency to be a bit more thoughtful in approach, and willingness to let less than perfect be ok, can send the message to others (especially Type As) that you don’t care, aren’t motivated, and perhaps have lower standards. While it might not be true, as a Type B, you need to make sure that you are learning from the Type As in your life and become more action-oriented.
In the end, neither personality type is the “right” type for leadership. It takes all kinds to lead organizations, and the more you can incorporate different styles, attitudes and behaviors, the more likely you will see success.
What about you? If you are a Type A, do you see any traits in Type Bs you wish you had? What about you Type Bs? What can you learn from the Type As around you?
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