So, How’s Your Leadership Temperament?

Our senses detect what is going on and our emotions assign meaning and significance. Your effectiveness as a leader depends greatly upon your ability to control your own behavior as well as the responses you evoke from others. Are you thoughtful in your responses or do you simply react because you are ‘passionate’? Do you inspire hope and courage or anxiety and avoidance? The answer depends a lot on your temperament. Let us continue to build a deeper understanding of leadership by exploring temperament and how it directly impacts how others see you as a leader. Having a working model of temperament increases your understanding of self and others as well as improving your ability to manage yourself and increase the influence you have with others.

Temperament refers to a person’s or animal’s nature, especially as it influences their behavior. We know strong-willed people as well as people who are more passive. Some tend to be more social and amicable others are more confrontational. For as long as people have been people, there have been efforts to define, describe, and control temperaments. The Biblical book of Proverbs 16:32 advises, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.” Aristotle thought temperament was controlled by the elements within us—earth, water, air, and fire. Hippocrates describes four bodily humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Freud took us from thinking about phlegm to inner drivers and our attempts to control them. Today, there are dozens of different tests and descriptions of temperaments. Some are quite detailed and nuanced like the 16 variations described by the Myers-Briggs Temperament Instrument (MBTI). Others are metaphysical like astrology and yet others are rather simplistic and blunt such as Type A personalities versus Type B. There is so much out there that it can be confusing and, worse still, it is not truly helpful in improving our leadership abilities other than to provide convenient labels that we can assign to people that are annoying us thereby writing them off. “Oh, that’s just John being his typical ‘A’ self.”

To cut through the volume of theories out there, it helps to select one that is both actionable and is based on observable behaviors, rather than inner drives or unknowable forces. DISC matches these criteria.

DISC is the temperament model developed by William Moulton Marston Ph.D. and was published in his book “The Emotions of Normal People” in 1928. Several firms offer DISC assessments under various names, but the basic concepts are no longer covered by copyright and are within the public domain.

Marston’s model is both intuitive and practical, particularly when viewed from a practitioner’s perspective rather than a theoretical or purely psychological point of view. The DISC model measures temperament along two scales:

  • ‘Perceived personal power and desire to control or affect change’ compared to ‘accepting things as they are’
  • ‘Personal focus on things and tasks’ as compared to ‘focus on people and relationships’

Intersecting these scales on a two-by-two matrix, we see Marston’s four basic temperament types. Those that have both the desire and feel that they have the ability to control the events and people around them are on the upper half of the spectrum. On the other hand, those that are more inclined to go with the flow, because they are satisfied or feel they lack the power to affect change, fall to the lower half. 

D = Directing: Those who want to affect change but are generally more concerned about the ‘what and how’ as compared to how others feel tend to be Directing, the ‘D’ in DISC. D’s generally prioritize results over feelings. They like to take charge. D’s are blessed with lots of confidence and have no problem making decisions, sometimes with little thought.

I = Influencing: Those who are inclined to initiate action but are equally concerned that others buy in. They do not direct as much as they try to Influence, the ‘I’ in DISC. I’s are natural entertainers and love to be the center of attention. I’s love to socialize, so much so that their productivity may suffer (annoying the D’s in the group).

S = Sustaining: The folks who are people focused but do not have the overwhelming drive to take control to sustain our systems and cultures. They are S’s. S’s are natural peacemakers, desiring harmony and freedom from conflict. They are good team players when they feel appreciated.

C = Conscientious: Those that are too focused on their tasks and have little need to socialize are generally meticulous and process oriented. They are Conscientious, the ‘C’ in DISC.

In reality, each of us is made up of a little bit of all of these. You can think of this as your DISC space, the place you feel comfortable. Being too far out of your space taxes your ability to adapt and respond appropriately to the needs of the situation. The further the situation pushes you outside your comfort zone, the more difficult it becomes. 

Here is my DISC Space. I tend to be more directing. Passively going along makes me a little crazy. I cannot do it for long. My tendency is also to act first without necessarily thinking through all the details and consequences, something that has gotten me into trouble throughout my life.

Now that we have the basics of Marston’s DISC model, next week we will take it deeper into how temperament influences your interactions with others.

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