Ignore Psychological Profiles and “Act Like” the Leader You Envision

Act Like

My European colleagues think we’re a little nuts.

You Americans are obsessed with psychological profiling. You put your leaders through psychological assessment after assessment. And with every new self-assessment you stick them into another little psychological box.

Yes. I know what they mean.

We do it in the spirit of hiring for competencies (translate: a futile attempt to predict mysterious and complex human behavior). We do it to foster self-awareness. And even when we couch assessment outcomes in terms of “tendencies” and “preferences,” the language of a profile immediately defines the tight bounds within which we see another person and ourselves.

My C-level clients can rattle off their psychological profile at the drop of a dime. I’m an ESFJ. I’m a High D, low I. I lead with blue, Jean leads with yellow.


I looked at the website of a professional organization the other day. The majority of board members identified themselves by name and MBTI profile.

Linda Chapman, ENFP

Richard Gonzalez, ISTP

Really? I mean, REALLY?

We have collectively bought into the notion of a neatly bound, neatly labeled self. And here’s the kicker. In my experience, cognitive awareness fosters minimal to no behavioral change. No, it tends to cement a fixed notion of self, and any personal exploration now occurs within the narrow confines of who we think we are.

I began my career as a professional theatre director and acting coach at some of the big acting schools in New York. I imagine Meryl Streep showing up at an audition:

Hi, I’m Meryl Streep, and I’m an ENFJ. I will now do Juliet from “Romeo and Juliet” for you …


I am interested in the leader who exhibits true personal range, not the leader with a fixed sense of self. I’m interested in a bold exploration of all that we are and might be.

Let us switch for a moment from cognitive parlance to performance language, shall we?

Act Like.

Act Like invites a delighted exploration of who I might be. And since whatever I decide to explore hails from my imagination, it is inherently part of who I already am.

An example.

Martin, a Swiss native, is the European GM of a global Fortune 500 and an integral part of the company’s Executive Team. He was viewed by his American CEO as being too quiet and passive. A little dry, a little pedantic. After bantering back and forth a bit with Martin, I volunteered the following thought: What do you think would happen if you acted a little more like an American?

We have collectively bought into the notion of a neatly bound, neatly labeled self. In my experience, cognitive awareness fosters minimal to no behavioral change. No, it tends to cement a fixed notion of self, and any personal exploration now occurs within the narrow confines of who we think we are.

Martin liked the idea. We had a good bit of fun, jesting about what “act like an American” might look like.

When Martin and I spoke again after his next executive meeting, I longed to hear how his experiment went:

“I had a blast”, Martin said. And after a short pause he added. “And you know what, acting like an American works with my European team, too.”

Bingo. Act Like transcends the angst of “this is not me” or “this is not who I really am” thinking. Whatever we do when we Act Like is who we already are. It is the self we do not yet know.

Act Like steers us from incremental change toward the bold leap. Act Like circumvents the fixed confines of our psychological profile.

Wanna be an inspirational leader?

Act Like one.

Wanna be an empathetic mentor-coach?

Act Like one.

Wanna be a fearless innovator?

Act Like one.

You’re in charge. You decide what it is you want to be. You fill in the blanks.

And then just start to Act Like.

Act Like.

It’s who you already are.

Achim Nowak is the author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within (Allworth/2013) and Power Speaking. An international authority on leadership presence, Achim coaches entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. He has been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, NPR, and on 60 Minutes. Achim is based in Miami. www.influens.com

  • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

    Achim, I love this post so much! Confession: I have never even taken the Myers-Briggs, and your post explains why. Through most of my childhood and into college, my mother worked for a small psychological testing company. She believed in the tests they gave, of course – we don’t breed hypocrites in the Coiné clan! But I spent a lot of time in her office as a kid, and discussing her work at home; then I studied psychology myself in college, I grew to be skeptical of these tests as a category of tools.

    A test is only as good as its designers’ personal and professional limitations; it is also only as good as the way that it is applied in real life. Even a perfect test, were it to be invented, would quickly be devalued because people would use it as shorthand, and ignore the deeper nuance it was meant to unveil.

    I know this position makes me something of a testing-nihilist: what DO I believe in, then? To be fair, I think a high-quality test administered by a talented professional and used by a careful, judicious client, can still provide great value to the organization.

    That’s rare, though. …Which is why your post is right on the money!

    BTW Your post reminded me of my own from a while back, one of my most popular ever: http://switchandshift.com/if-it-can-be-measured-it-can-be-manipulated

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  • Chickwriter

    Well said!

  • Brian Smith – Reformed Control

    Great post Achim. Thank you for sharing. I couldn`t agree more. I use assessment tools in my training sessions to stress that this is who you are but it doesn`t have to limit you, to where you want to go. Think it, act it, become it.

  • Adina Wollam

    As an applied psychologist (aka, I don’t care what the book says, only what is observed), I’m keenly aware of the overwhelming corporate misuse of personality assessments, though I can’t go so far as to say the categorization is necessarily restrictive; many who don’t follow the herd find it freeing and validating.

    I am not sure what you mean about cognitive awareness and change. A simple awareness of our thoughts doesn’t generally lead to change, true, but that’s not something you’ll find a personality test focusing on. In the context of the paragraph, I almost thought you meant self awareness, but that’s a required ingredient for meaningful change. I must have misunderstood something!

    At any rate, I applaud your willingness to balance Western with Eastern models, especially when it comes to topics like this! So many people limit themselves to believing nuggets of truth could only be where they’re digging!

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  • http://leadbychoice.wordpress.com/ Kimunya Mugo

    As one to stay away from the mold, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Imagine if all of us started to gravitate into neat little corners, oh what a drab place this would be. In my experience, being yourself comes at a cost. Many times you will be called the misfit because you do not “conform” to the norms. My question has always been, “Who created this ‘norm’?” I was born different for a reason. Otherwise I may just as well become a turtle (pun intended).

    Being yourself if your gift to society, it is the difference between good and great. Be yourself… Just Do It!

    Thank you for reminding us that being an individual human being is still okay :)

  • Achim Nowak

    Thank you to a fellow writer!

  • Achim Nowak

    Ted – thank you for your very personal response.
    I loved perusing your “while back” post and yes, we share very similar sentiments, indeed. Not at all surprised.
    Every test inherently has bias – that of the conceptual framework that was used to create it. Nothing wrong with that, in my mind. But let’s own up to the fact that every assessment tool puts folks into a biased conversation. This conversation may be quite helpful to some folks – but bias it carries.
    The over-arching bias, of course, is Western psychology as a vehicle for understanding human behavior. It has become a vast, self-perpetuating mega-industry that few folks question any more. I have personally benefitted greatly from my work with various psychologists. But I am currently much more interested in Eastern, more metaphysical frameworks to better excavate how humans tick. I find these frameworks deeper, richer, more truly revelatory.

  • Alessia

    I’m studying social psychology right now and the professor keeps saying the same. I took the Myers-Briggs test and I actually joined the group on Facebook for my personality type and I can see how attached to the label people are…they ask all the time if they’re really being INFPs because of X or Y that others do differently and stuff. Not for me really, though I like to know my preferences…it defines my comfort zone and how far I have to push to get out of it…

  • Natalie Scholberg

    Thank you Achim, for the wake up call!

    Your post took me back 15 years, and especially your comment referring to the “vast, self-perpetuating mega-industry that few folks question any more.”

    In the late 90’s, I worked in Corp Comm for a bank that had jumped on the DISC bandwagon. There was great enthusiasm and talk of putting our ‘types’ on name badges and cubicles – I was horrified! Ten years later, at a different bank, I didn’t question Myers’-Briggs at all…

    Today, I am an avid student of human behavior and leadership. You’ve reminded me that awareness does not equate to change, and labels can be dangerous.

  • Achim Nowak

    Natalie – I herald all of your connecting dots!
    I crave self-awareness and believe it is critical to us showing up well in the world. I also believe that naming something can be helpful – it is a way of anchoring that which is slippery and elusive. Latching on to a fixed sense of who we are, however, is NOT helpful – especially when this sense of self is the outcome of a self-assessment that presumes I am self-aware.
    There have been many periods in my life when my sense of myself would not have matched how others saw me – when others likely saw me with a lot more clarity than I did. When we constantly ask all of us humans to self-assess in the context of a potentially limited or highly filtered self-awareness – whew, we’re in trouble ..

  • Achim Nowak

    Alessia – I applaud your healthy outlook on how to play with the information you received from your personality profile.
    Consider it just that – information. Consider it a snapshot in time. Consider how you want to experiment with behaviors along the MBTI dichotomies – and then you have turned your “report” into a helpful catalyst for personal exploration!

  • Achim Nowak

    Brian – I love “Think it, act it, become it.” May just have to appropriate that from you …

  • Brian Smith – Reformed Control

    Be my guest – Cheers

  • Achim Nowak

    I love that you’re an applied psychologist. I am a firm believer in the psychological process, have benefitted from my own self-exploration with multiple psychologists for over two decades, and employ several psychologists at my firm who do amazing work with our clients.
    It’s all about context, isn’t it? I believe that any framework we use to define personality is inherently limiting; who we are transcends psychological models.That doesn’t mean an assessment cannot offer invaluable insights. The big European criticism of psychological self-assessment is that all is filtered through my perception of myself. If I have limited self-awareness, all will be filtered through this limited lens. In the corporate playground, I much prefer a 360 feedback tool to a psychological assessment tool. And I wholeheartedly reject any tool that, intended or not, champions a fixed sense of self. If an assessment process culminates in a rigid definition of “This is who I am,” it has failed.

  • Adina Wollam

    I get you. Any instrument that only fits the here and now and can’t allow for growth/change is limited and limiting. Like planting a sapling and pruning shears, but nothing else to keep the tree shaped. The goal for any of us, or for any enterprise, is development, so I think tools of any kind should be useful enough to support that movement. No, that’s not quite right either. Your 360 comment is spot-on. Tools should be flexible enough to look at the whole person (interests, passions, talents), not just a work persona or one’s employment potential as it relates to a particular employer.

  • Achim Nowak

    I appreciate your thoughtful “spin-out.” Yes, my bias is always toward personal development and deepening rather than reinforcing a perceived status quo. Most of us, I believe, have been socialized to not be who we really are and to play small. Any tools that open the gate toward a widening instead of a confining are welcome …

  • Achim Nowak

    Misfit/Norm/Conform are all loaded words, aren’t they? The key to our personal evolution is our willingness to be self-aware – and to relentlessly question whose narrative we’re following.

    The beauty of “being yourself,” as you put it – that has meant different things at different stages in my life. If I have a very tightly-fixed sense of myself, I am much more likely to block this beautiful personal evolution …

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