Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leverage Your Strengths

Written by: on April 7, 2022

The age-old question asks: Is it nature or nurture? What makes us the way we are? Why does one person want to bungee jump over a river gorge while their sibling cautiously stands back from the railing? Daniel Nettle in Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are examines the mysterious and complex topic of human personality and answers the nature/nurture question with a “yes, it is both” answer. This psychology book traces study that goes back to the late 1800s, leaning heavily into evolutionary theory. Nettle’s premise of understanding personality aims at a broad audience. “This book is aimed at the interested general reader, rather than just my academic colleagues.”[1] The book contains a mix of theory, research, and personal stories to illustrate the points.

Nettle begins with foundational principles of personality. “Personality traits are meaningful, stable, partly genetically inherited consistencies in classes of behaviour.”[2] By meaningful, the author relates personality traits to certain behavior characteristics common to that trait. By stable, Nettle argues for the unchanging nature of personality. In other words, we cannot change personality type, only improve the characteristics of our personality type(s). By saying partly genetic he points to emerging research of biological connection to personality. “Though the techniques are new, they are already yielding evidence that personality traits have a discoverable brain basis.”[3] At the same time, environment also plays a role in the development and manifestation of personality.

The core of Personality explores what Nettle calls the “big five” personality traits. A chapter is devoted to each. The big five includes: Extroversion (titled “wanderers”), Neuroticism (“worriers”), Conscientiousness (“controllers”), Agreeableness (“empathizers”), and Open-mindedness (“poets”). Nettle believes that each personality type possesses a positive aspect. One might wonder about the positive application of Neuroticism, but there are times when worry is legitimate and beneficial. A few points of interest emerged for me in this reading.

In the chapter on Extroversion, Nettle articulates a connection to dopamine as a significant reason for the trait. “There is converging evidence, then, that what makes an extravert an extravert is a high degree of responsiveness in a suite of dopamine-driven brain areas…”[4] Similar to Lieberman and Long, Nettle connects a chemical to behavior and personality. In a departure from what I recall in The Molecule of More, Nettle argues that “addictions are really about the failure to inhibit a once-rewarded behaviour, not about the degree of euphoria that is created.”[5] He admits the connection between positive response and Extroversion. However, when it comes to predicting addiction, “in studies of which personality characteristics predict the development of addiction problems, it is Conscientiousness rather than Extroversion which features.”[6] This conclusion seems at odds with the conclusions I took from Lieberman and Long. I would reread their work to confirm or deny that if I had more time.

In the chapter on Conscientiousness, Nettle makes a bold statement about the impact of scoring high in this trait. “Conscientiousness is the most reliable personality predictor of occupational success across the board…In general, the higher Conscientiousness score you have, the better you will do, other things being equal.”[7] He does admit a weak connection, but one that shows up consistently. One may be tempted to equate this trait with intelligence. However, Nettle debunks that thought, suggesting that intelligent people score low in this trait due to innate abilities allowing for their intellect to substitute for self-discipline.

Those first two observations stirred curiosity in me. The last one includes application to my leadership role. While Nettle contends that personality traits cannot be changed, growth within traits can. Instead of wishing away one’s traits, “it is rather a question of finding fruitful expressions of the profile we happen to have inherited by capitalizing on the strengths and minimizing the effects of the weaknesses.”[8] Each personality type contains the potential for great good and full life. What one spends their time working on within themselves matters.

In my earlier years of ministry, several sources that spoke into my life encouraged me to strengthen my areas of weakness. The thought centered on the model of a well-rounded leader. Nettle and others like Marcus Buckingham in his book Go Put Your Strengths to Work argue for leveraging strength, not shoring up weakness. Great time and energy may increase one’s weakness, but that time and energy produce more return by building one’s strengths. Over the years, this principle shaped my hiring practice to be “staff to my weaknesses.” In other words, hire people who are strong where I am not. For example, I am not a good counselor. I wish I was, but alas, I am not. A few people on the staff excel at counseling. Those seeking counselor receive better input from someone other than me. When a leader spends most of her/his time in their area of strength, everyone wins.


[1] Daniel Nettle, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 13.

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 96.

[5] Ibid., 139.

[6] Ibid., 138.

[7] Ibid., 142.

[8] Ibid., 245.

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

10 responses to “Leverage Your Strengths”

  1. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Roy: Really great connections that I hadn’t thought of while doing this reading. I also love your practice of hiring to your weaknesses – I see too often that leaders feel threatened to have people better at them in certain areas when in reality, as you articulated, it only makes the whole team stronger. I’m interested, did you find you associated with one of the big five more than the others?

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Roy: Great analysis of Nettle’s work. I have also read about the differing approaches for leaders to either shore up their weakness, or to leverage their strengths. I wish I could do both but the older I get I see the wisdom in focusing on our strengths. Only I can do what God has specifically called me to do in my unique way. In a leadership role then, surrounding yourself with others whose strengths fills in your weaknesses seems just so wise. Great post.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Well done Roy. That is a good point about Nettle, addiction, and what Lieberman says. If I recall correctly, you are spot on as it seemed the addictive personality type was closely associated with dopamine. However, I have to say that what Nettle said made sense. That would be interesting to see further study on the two… my gut says extroversion + dopamine = addictive personality types (that is totally me left unchecked).

    Good word on identifying your strengths and weaknesses. As I have said, you are in fact a SELF-DIFFERENTIATED LEADER!

  4. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Roy, what an excellent review of Nettle. I especially like how you highlight his observation that “Conscientiousness is the most reliable personality predictor of occupational success across the board” and how you play to your strengths. In addition to hiring decisions, if you were to employ strengths psychology within a low-income context, what other ways would you use this tool?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Henry, based on the reading from this last week, I believe a leader within a low-income context would need to be optimistic and resilient. I assume that someone prone to be neurotic would find it difficult to thrive in an environment that possesses so many challenges as worry has many opportunities to dominate his/her thoughts.

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    I am once again thankful for your ponderings on our reading Roy.

    In relation to your observation on addiction between Nettle and Long/Leiberman…quickley read pages 102-104 in Molecule of More….how do you compare and contrast the authors with this in mind? If you were to consider your theology of leadership does this information invite a new layer to it?

  6. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Nicole, thanks for the “heads-up” on the pages in The Molecule of More. It leads me to see some connection but more contrast between the two approaches to addiction. Lieberman/Long seems to attribute a lot of addictive behavior to DNA while Nettle points toward personality-based lack of impulse control. The connection I believe between the two is like Nettle says early on: part of your personality is nature and part is nurture. Yet each of the two books writes strongly about one or the other when it comes to addiction. Having a recovery ministry at our church and being a part of it, I have anecdotally heard stories that would argue for both sides of that coin. This much I know: the heart of humanity is a great mystery!

  7. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Roy, I appreciate your interpretation of Nettle’s book. I especially like how you highlighted the point that “personality traits cannot be changed, growth within traits can.”
    You mentioned that you use personality strengths of others to offset your weaknesses, what do you do when there isn’t anyone around to fill that gap? How might you implement Nettle differently to further strengthen you work?

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