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To lead well, know yourself

In community leadership, having a good sense of self can help you relate well to others. But knowing yourself means spending some time looking inward. Just ask Paul Torkelson.

Torkelson applied what he learned about himself while participating in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program (MARL) to help him think about his leadership in the Minnesota House of Representatives. MARL is one of many leadership education cohorts offered by Extension's Leadership and Civic Engagement (LCE) educators. It is a two-year leadership program offered through a partnership between the University of Minnesota and Southwest Minnesota State University since 2000.

The program gave Torkelson the opportunity to explore his personal leadership style. "I happen to be an introvert," he says. "What I didn't understand before the program, but understand now, is how important it is for me as an introvert to take some time after doing a lot of public work to recharge my batteries. I learned energy is drained away from me when I'm working in the public whereas an extrovert gains energy from the public. Learning that was extremely beneficial for me." (Listen to Torkelson describe his leadership experience.)

Looking inward

Torkelson learned his preference for introversion by taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) inventory. The assessment tool, which is used in many of Extension's LCE program, is based on Carl Jung's theory of psychological types. Its purpose is to uncover the ways people prefer to use their perception and judgment. It is important to realize, however, that the MBTI is not a test but a personal inventory; it describes rather than prescribes. "It is meant to help people know more about themselves and the impact they have on others," says Mike Liepold, LCE statewide educator and primary educator for the MARL program.

For example, those with extrovert and introvert preferences tend to approach situations differently. "Someone who prefers extroversion, for instance, may 'think out loud,'" says Mary Ann Hennen, program leader for Leadership and Civic Engagement programs at Extension. "They often are one of the first to talk at a meeting. Those who consider themselves introverts, on the other hand, will tend to compile their thoughts first."

Self-assessments can have practical, day-to-day applications, too. "The MBTI is meant to help people increase their ability to adapt to a multitude of real-life situations," says Leadership and Civic Engagement educator Catherine Rasmussen. She often delivers the MBTI to several Extension leadership education cohorts each year. "The goal is not just to understand oneself but to better understand others' styles as well," Rasmussen says. "Understanding why others communicate, make decisions, perceive things, or work differently can help you become a more effective leader."

Along with measuring one's preference toward extraversion or introversion, the MBTI tool also looks at tendencies toward sensing and intuition (being concerned with the here and now vs. what might be), thinking and feeling (being focused on the issue first vs. the person), and judging and perceiving (preferring to plan vs. spontaneity). Understanding these preferences helps you adjust your behavior (for example, being conscious of your tendency to fill silences during meetings rather than asking for additional time to respond). Perhaps most important, it helps you understand and relate to others' needs and preferences.

Beyond the Myers-Briggs

In addition to the Myers-Briggs tool, Liepold and Rasmussen use other self-assessments to guide participants in their programs. One is the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i), which measures emotional intelligence. He explains that emotional intelligence is a set of emotional and social skills that establish how we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain personal relationships, and cope with challenges. "We've learned there's a correlation between emotional intelligence, as measured by EQ-i, and leadership," Liepold says. "Participants can increase their leadership ability by knowing where to focus their efforts."

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is another self-assessment tool Liepold uses, and it describes how a person manages conflict. The use of multiple self-assessment tools provides a holistic view of one's personality and leadership style, and combining the results of each offers greater insight into understanding the most about yourself.

Avoiding possible pitfalls

While self-assessment tools are a helpful way to learn more about your leadership style, they can also make it easier for people to label one another. "People use labels to help them manage the complexities in the world around them," Hennen says. "But that is dangerous, because preconceived notions about personality types based only on what others see can cause people to get pegged incorrectly or unfairly."

The best way to overcome these assumptions is to realize they are just that - assumptions. The results of self-assessments are simply an indication of preferences, and learning to recognize each other's preferences is the best way to embrace them. "In our leadership programs, we stress to people that self-assessments are not meant to pigeon-hole or stereotype," Rasmussen says. "Rather, they help indicate areas of personal and professional development and growth."

Becoming a better leader

The key to relating well to others is, ultimately, first being able to relate well to yourself. "Leaders need to understand themselves in order to lead," Liepold says. "Understanding yourself helps you better understand others." And that type of self-knowledge makes a difference.

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Elyse Paxton

Reviewed in 2014

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