Can becoming a leader change your personality?

Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Professor Chia-Huei Wu is Chair in Organisational Psychology. He studies proactive behaviour, personality development, work design, overqualification and employees' subjective well-being.

Chiahuei wu_LUBS

An abundance of psychological research suggests there are five general personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Researchers have argued that these five personality traits (called the Big Five) influence our behaviour at work. And while we might think of personality traits as stable and unchanging, researchers are now beginning to ask whether our job responsibilities are actually capable of changing our personalities.  

New leadership roles influence our personality

My co-authors (Wen-Dong Li, Shuping Li, Jie Jasmine Feng, Mo Wang, Hong Zhang and Michael Frese) and I examined the possibility that taking on new leadership roles at work could influence personality traits. In our study, we examined potential changes in two personality traits: conscientiousness and emotional stability. Conscientiousness, defined as the tendency to be dependable, efficient, and organised, is related to important work outcomes like job performance. Emotional stability, defined as the tendency to remain calm and poised, is said to be an important leadership quality.  

People taking on new leadership roles are faced with new job demands. These new job demands may also come with new expectations for how to behave. To meet these new expectations, novice leaders need to be more efficient, dependable, and organised (i.e. more conscientious). Additionally, new leadership expectations may require leaders to remain poised in the face of greater challenges (i.e. more emotionally stable). We argue that required behavior changes will be associated with increases in conscientiousness and emotional stability.  

The research study

To test these hypotheses, we ran two studies on large, publicly available datasets that tracked wellbeing over long periods of time. Results showed that becoming a leader did not predict an increase in emotional stability, but did predict an increase in conscientiousness that even lasted many years later.  

In study two, we examined personality changes over a shorter duration of time. Results again showed that becoming a leader was associated with increases in conscientiousness but not emotional stability. Further, results suggest that increases in conscientiousness can be attributed to leaders experiencing higher expectations and demands in their new leadership roles.  

Practical applications

The results from these two studies demonstrate that rising to a leadership position can influence conscientiousness. Practically, these results have implications for both individuals and organisations. We suggest that promoting employees into leadership roles may have the potential to enhance their conscientiousness, which in turn, may further enhance their leadership effectiveness. For organisations, it may prove beneficial to assign promising employees to informal leadership roles to help develop their leadership capabilities over time.  


Read the article - “Can Becoming a Leader Change Your Personality? An Investigation with Two Longitudinal Studies from a Role Based Perspective” - in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2020).  

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.