Leadership Dyads: Beauty, Disaster, and the Big Five - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #068

Leadership Dyads: Beauty, Disaster, and the Big Five

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‘Leadership dyads’ — or leader/deputy partnerships — can be optimised for high performance by looking at the similarities and differences between the two individual personalities, and marrying them to form a complimentary dyad. This can lead to great results for an organization as a whole. Key to applying this Idea is self-awareness — a rare and precious talent indeed. Fortunately, there is a five-factor personality model — ‘the Big Five’ — that we can use to help us achieve it. 


In 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it attempted to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The disaster was found to have been caused by a piece of foam insulation that had broken away and struck the left wing during launch. Further investigations revealed that some of the NASA engineers had suspected the damage when the shuttle was still in orbit; one engineer had even requested additional imaging to investigate further but his request was refused by a manager, against whom he did not speak up as he felt he was too ‘low in the organization’ to do so. This has been called: ‘a disaster caused by the lack of psychological safety.’ It was a massive and dangerous breakdown of a leadership dyad.

To give an example from the corporate world, consider the two members of a marketing department in a company based in Geneva: Though both have similar personalities, ‘John’ scored higher on assertiveness than ‘Stephan’, suggesting John had a more dominant personality. On the other hand, Stephan scored higher on conscientiousness, reflecting his greater emphasis on work–life balance. During discussions, it emerged that John had often felt unsupported by Stephan, something Stephan denied. Moreover, Stephan became more and more closed off as the discussion progressed, leading to what we might call an undermining of John’s sense of psychological safety.

In both instances the ‘fatal flaw’ at the heart of the breakdown is a lack of self-awareness on the part of both leader and deputy: both sides of the leadership dyad.

At their best, companies are like symphony orchestras; there are first violins and second violins with one playing the melody and the other the harmony. Different roles come together to produce beautiful music: combining their efforts to lead in a unique and effective way.

So how can we ensure that a leadership dyad produces beautiful music rather than high-profile disaster? What is the best way to enhance a dyad’s leadership effectiveness? The answer is in leveraging individual differences between the two leaders to achieve an overall synergy. In order to do that it is crucial to not only know yourself, but to understand the similarities and differences of your dyad partner (i.e. your ‘complementarities’). We are talking about Personality. Fortunately there is a five-factor model of personality — ‘the Big Five’ — that demonstrates how certain traits can be understood better, and help lead us to better ‘complementarity’. 


The five-factor model of personality — ‘the Big Five’ — describes human personality along five facets — emotionality, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Recognising and understanding these facets and their sub-divisions can greatly help us achieve self-awareness and ‘complementarity’ with a dyad partner.

The ‘Big Five’:

  • Emotionality (Need for stability): propensity to experience and understand negative emotion such as anger, stress and worry. People on the high side tend to be more reactive and those on the low side generally more resilient.
  • Extraversion: the degree to which people derive energy from social contacts. The degree to which a personality is characterized by warmth, sociability, dominance, activity level, risk-taking and cheerfulness.
  • Openness: measures an individual’s interest in exploring ideas and new experiences.  High scorers are imaginative, conceptual, ‘big picture’ thinkers.
  • Agreeableness: the degree to which we place other people’s interests above our own. Trust, candour and consideration vs. self-interest and competitiveness.
  • Conscientiousness: how structured people are in their approach to work — including sense of competence, orderliness, reliability, achievement-orientation, self-discipline and deliberateness.

The ‘Big Five’ can help us with our self-awareness, and help us achieve ‘complementarity’ within a dyad. To strengthen a dyad even further we can develop common ground rules, a shared commitment to a common vision and strategy, and the alignment of incentives to achieve this. Trust is another essential ingredient to creating synergy, which can further be broken down into ‘disclosure’ and regular communication. Together, these elements can help build a well-functioning and complementary leadership dyad, which in turn can help companies achieve great results.



Leadership Dyads: Playing to Your Strengths, Toegel. G, INSIGHTS@IMD, 2011


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Idea conceived

January 1, 2011

Idea posted

Jan 2013
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