Temperaments Model of Personality and Leadership

Most experts agree that leadership is the single most important factor in the success of any organization. Libraries of books, thousands of coaches, and scores of organizations exist to help people become better leaders. Tomes decry the lack of leadership in all areas of life. An Arab proverb is said to read “Better an army of sheep led by a lion than an army of lions led by a sheep.”

Leadership can be taught, and it can be useful to identify each individual’s natural temperament, understand the strengths and weaknesses of that temperament, and help the leader perfect what is good and improve what is bad. There are dozens of ways to characterize personality, including the Myers-Briggs (introvert-extrovert, thinking-feeling, sensing-intuiting, and judging-perceiving), Types A and B, Animals (bear-monkey-dolphin-owl) and others. One of the most famous is the Temperaments (choleric-sanguine-melancholy-phlegmatic). Each model has strengths and weaknesses, and Temperaments model is commonly used.

The derivation of this system is historical, based on Galen’s four humours which were thought to comprise the body. Everyone had a mix (Latin temperare – to mix) of each humor, but one was predominant. The humour which predominated gave them their personality type. Greek physicians Hippocrates (460-370 BC) and Galen (AD 129-199) thought that imbalance of these humours caused disease. This theory was taught in to physicians throughout the western world and elsewhere for over 1500 years.

Choleric (Gk choler – “yellow bile”) – bilious of temperament or complexion, easily moved to anger
Phlegmatic (Gk phlegmatikos – “of the phlegm) – apathetic, sluggish, self possessed, composed
Sanguine (Medieval sanguin – “color of blood”) – warm, passionate, cheerful
Melancholic (Gk melancholia – “black bile”) – sadness

Even though some of these personality types seem bad and others good, each has advantages and disadvantages. The theory of the humours fell out of favor in medicine 200 years ago, but some of the ideas are still useful.

Choleric
1.Strengths – well organized, gets jobs done, strong willed and driven, independent and takes a stand
2.Weaknesses – can run over people, insensitive, hot tempered, can be proud or angry
3.Opportunities – potential to inspire and direct others to accomplish great things
4.Threats – potential to alienate others and overlook the best things because those best things are often not measurable.

Sanguine
1.Strengths – lively, friendly, outgoing and people-loving. Tender and compassionate.
2.Weaknesses – weak-willed, with go along to get along, impractical and disorganized.
3.Opportunities – potential to minister to others with sensitivity and caring, meeting the deepest needs.
4.Threats – potential to compromise on important doctrines and decisions just to get along. Can be egotistical.

Melancholy
1.Strengths – analytical, self-sacrificing, gifted and perfectionistic.
2.Weaknesses – self centered, pessimistic, fearful and dark, moody
3.Opportunities – potential to solve complex and important problems, both for people and for his organization as he puts them before himself.
4.Threats – potential to be paralyzed by fear or depression.

Phlegmatic
1.Strengths – happy, easy going, dependable, practical and efficient
2.Weaknesses – doesn’t want to get involved in hard things, lazy, stubborn and resistant to leadership
3.Opportunities – potential to hold groups together by being a peacemaker, to lighten up the cholerics and melancholics of the world, and to stay the course in a storm.
4.Threats – potential to be unleadable and uninterested in helping anyone but himself.

Everyone has a combination of each of these characteristics, but everyone tends to exhibit one (or even two) type(s) more strongly than the others. To use Biblical examples, Abraham tended towards choleric. He had to be, because moving a large party of humans and animals from a safe home to an unknown environment hundreds of miles away takes drive, guts, and a high degree of competence. Gathering an army of servants, pursuing a larger enemy at night and destroying it is not for the light hearted either. Most sanguines, melancholics and phlegmatics probably could never have done it. His “get it done” style of leadership was well suited for his tasks.

Jacob had a fair amount of choleric, because outmaneuvering Laban, confronting Esau and wrestling with an angel were not for the faint of heart. However, he had a broad streak of melancholy as well. Jacob’s dark side was manifest in his preferential treatment of his wife Rachel and her sons Joseph and Benjamin. After Joseph’s disappearance (Genesis 37:34-35) and when later faced with possibility of losing Benjamin (Genesis 43:14), Jacob’s bias and his mournful side are apparent.

Joseph was more of a phlegmatic. He did not so much initiate new things as perform faithfully the things he was given to do. Being sold to Potiphar, being accused of adultery, being left in prison and interpreting Pharaoh’s dream were not moves that he planned and made on the chessboard of his life, but rather things that happened to him. To Joseph’s credit, he was wise and industrious enough to faithfully serve God throughout all of these. Joseph was faithful and was certainly stubborn but was not lazy. He did not avoid leadership but did not scheme for it either.

Most people are a combination of these types, but one or two predominate. Further, people become more of one and less of another depending upon their situation. One cannot remain long in leadership in the US military without having a stiff dose of choleric. Personalities can change, and so even if you are not choleric when you start, you will be more so when you finish. When faced with problems that can kill you, only people who can “get it done” survive.

People in academia or in theater tend towards melancholic, perhaps in part because of the introspection required to be a good professor or actor. Those in sales and politics seem to do well if they are more sanguine. And every organization needs a few phlegmatics.

Like every personality tool, this one has limitations. No one can be put into a box by any label, and to do so is to misunderstand them and harm their organization. Nonetheless, they are all worth considering as we strive to develop leaders. The Temperaments model can assist us as we strive to guide our organizations, nation and world through the 21st century.

One thought on “Temperaments Model of Personality and Leadership

  1. This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would wantHaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

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