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Know yourself to become a better leader

2023年2月9日 | 5 分钟阅读

Marcia McNutt, PhD

Quote from Marcia McNutt, PhD

Dr Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, writes about how she has used personality profiling tools to develop as a leader

Are leaders born, or are they made? I admit to having a certain fascination with personality profiling as a tool to better understand myself and as an indicator of where I can improve. I believe that insights gained from such exercises have helped me become more effective in my various roles over the years.

The leadership triangle

My interest in personality profiling began back in the 1980s when I was a faculty member at MIT leading a small lab with several graduate students and postdocs. I received a request from a professor at UCLA who was investigating women in science, presumably with the intent to understand why, at that point in time, some women had achieved success in science while others had not. Her test, like many others, asked innocuous questions with no right or wrong answers, probing what your likely reaction would be to different situations.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

A few months after completing the test, the UCLA researcher called me with breathless excitement. She said, “I have found you! You are my Joan of Arc!”

Of course I didn’t understand what she meant, so she explained that the test was designed to plot various personality types within a triangle (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Triangular map of personality types (Source: Marcia McNutt)

Figure 1. Triangular map of personality types (Source: Marcia McNutt)

At the three vertices of the triangle were three extremes: the leader, the follower and the loner. Presumably a perfectly balanced personality would land in the center of the triangle. My results plotted along the edge of the triangle at the perpendicular bisector between the leader and the loner. It meant I was the type of person who would be perfectly happy to lead the troops into battle, but if they failed to follow me, I’d just get the job done myself.   This revelation came back to me often over the years as I came to realize that my style might work just fine with a small group of students and postdocs but would not be a very effective leadership style as my responsibilities grew to include scientists who are my peers. It would be much easier to achieve success as a team rather than as an individual.

Personality “colors”

A decade later, I left MIT to become the director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)在新的选项卡/窗口中打开 in Moss Landing, California. The institute, only a decade old at the time, was founded by David Packard to develop new platforms, tools and approaches to accelerate ocean exploration and discovery by creating a peer relationship between ocean scientists and engineers. However, a lack of teamwork among the scientists, engineers, marine operations staff and education and outreach professionals limited the effectiveness of the organization. Early in my tenure at MBARI, a consultant was brought in help us understand how to work together more effectively.

The consultant began by administering to each staff member another personality profiling tool, one which probed what values each person holds paramount. The results were dumbfounding.

Based on their responses, each staff member was broadly grouped into one of four “color” personality types在新的选项卡/窗口中打开 (Figure 2), and those different personality types were segregated into different divisions within the institute as follows:

  • Green: Are you solving the right problem? The scientists in the institute were overwhelmingly Green.

  • Gold: Are you solving the problem right (e.g., using appropriate procedures)? The engineers were overwhelmingly Gold.

  • Orange: Did you get the job done? The marine operations staff were overwhelmingly Orange.

  • Blue: Was everyone happy with the result? The education and outreach staff were overwhelmingly Blue.

Figure 2. The four colors of personality (Source of text: True Colors Personality Test)

Figure 2. The four colors of personality (Source of text: True Colors Personality Test)

With this information, it was easy to understand why the institute staff members were not working together in harmony.

The scientists were so focused on solving the right problem that they ignored deadlines and budgets. After all, what is the point of executing the project if you are not getting it right?

On the other hand, the engineers would argue that there are many “right” answers to a problem. One approach might minimize schedule, another risk and a third cost. What was instead important to the engineers was that proper process was followed: they were constantly having design reviews, allocating contingency, charting progress and testing concepts. Engineers did not accept that there could only be one right answer and got impatient with the schedule and budget overruns from the scientists.

The marine staff, on the other hand, just wanted to get the job done. They would leave the dock for a test deployment of a new tool and return with it completely jerry-rigged with duct tape and tie wraps. They would explain to the engineers that the leader on the tool wouldn’t go through the shive on the A-frame, and the tool was too long to clear the deck. They fixed it on the fly and got the job done. The engineers would ask where the documentation is for the changes to the tool, but none would be forthcoming because the marine operations people, having gotten the job done, were headed to the nearby pub.

And finally, the education and outreach people didn’t care if the answer was right, or process was followed, or even if the job was completed. They wanted to know how everyone felt about it. The divisions along the color lines were so stark that a young woman, hired into Engineering but with the Orange personality, transferred to Marine Operations within a few months of arriving.

Armed with this knowledge, everyone in the institute started to look at problems from the perspective of those in the other divisions. They saw the strength in the complementary skill sets, rather than fighting against other perspectives. As an example, the Engineers created a new department within the division that focused on the interface with Marine Operations. These engineers had enough Orange in their personality types to work well with Marine Operations, keeping designs up to date, use manuals current, and proven tools operating effectively.

As director of the institute, I also took the personality test. No surprise that as a scientist, my dominant color was Green. But fully one half of my personality was in equal parts Gold and Orange. Clearly I cared most about being right, but I also valued process and getting the job done. What I didn’t demonstrate was any Blue. This was a huge wake-up call. I realized that if I didn’t get in touch with my inner Blue, I would be like a Panzer, running over anyone in my way. I started focusing more on the people side of marine science. A decade later, I took the test again and was gratified to find a healthy dose of Blue in my new result.

Application in a time of crisis

This experience came in hand in 2010 when, as Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS)在新的选项卡/窗口中打开, I was sent to BP headquarters in Houston to fight the Deepwater Horizon oil spill在新的选项卡/窗口中打开. I was able to get the best out of the team assembled in Houston by focusing the USGS scientists on what questions needed to be answered to control the spill and plug the well. The DOE engineers were essential for designing solutions to measure the flow rate of the well, collect the discharge and plug the well. The BP field crews were one of the best “get ‘er done” teams I had ever had the pleasure of collaborating with. And other government leaders — notably Incident Commander Adm Thad Allen在新的选项卡/窗口中打开, then Commandant of the US Coast Guard — kept stakeholders, including the public, informed on the issues so they would embrace the solutions.

Know yourself

I took away important lessons from these experiences. The first is that personality profiling exercises can help you understand not only your own strengths and weaknesses but those of your team members. Fortunately for me, I discovered when I was still an early career researcher that all of us get more accomplished when we are effective members of teams rather than loners or dictators. I am similarly grateful that I discovered my weakness in engaging the stakeholders with solutions I knew to be scientifically sound. Knowing what I lacked was key to changing my interaction with others to improve outcomes. Being able to accurately assess the talents of others on the team ensured that each person’s skills were used to advantage.

I suspect that my shortcomings are not uncommon among scientists. After all, no scientist achieves prominence in their research by following the crowd or caring what the reaction of the public will be to scientific truths they know to be solidly grounded. Many people will have their own stories of researchers promoted to leadership, only to crash and burn. I recall one engineer who was appointed to lead a university, only be removed after a bit more than a year in the role because they were tone deaf to the impact of their decisions on the students and staff. In fact, nearly every example I can recall of leadership failures in science trace back to either not caring about the people involved in the organization or not embracing the importance of teamwork.

Fortunately, with proper preparation, we should be able to reduce the number of such failures for the benefit of all science.


Marcia McNutt, PhD Headshot


Marcia McNutt, PhD


National Academy of Sciences