“Type A” – Is it all that bad?

McLeod, S. A. (2011). Type A Personality - Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/personality-a.html

McLeod, S. A. (2011). Type A Personality – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/personality-a.html

Most of us in leadership have had to “wrestle” a bit with our personality in one way or another and most in leadership positions possess personality traits commonly referred to as “Type A.”  Type A folks are driven – for success, for accomplishment, for recognition, for significance, or for some other goal. There is a strong level of competitiveness (how else does one get to “the top”?), a sense of urgency, and thus a strong work ethic which results in time involvement and placing work before people.

For Christian leaders, this combativeness element presents a problem. Jesus’ disciples, perhaps more Type A than Scripture presents them to be, were no different. At the last supper table they’re discussing who among them would be the greatest (Luke 22:24).

Type A personality, also known as the Type A Behavior Pattern, is a set of characteristics that includes being impatient, excessively time-conscious, insecure about one’s status, highly competitive, hostile and aggressive, and incapable of relaxation. Sound close?  You can take a test (the questions are helpful and you receive some results, but you’ll have to purchase results for full summary, which I did not do) to see if you’re type A or not. There may be other (and better) ones.

What is Type A?

Type A individuals are often high-achieving and tend to be workaholics when on a project.  They often multi-task, drive themselves with deadlines, and can be very unhappy about the smallest of delays. They have been described as stress junkies, though this I think this is not a motivation for most. The Type B personality, in contrast, is patient, relaxed, and easy-going. There is also a Type AB mixed profile for people who cannot be clearly categorized (which most of us hope for “not easily categorized” since we’re so unique).

According to Friedman (1996), Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms, one hidden, as well as two additional factors that are more obvious:

  • An intrinsic (hidden) insecurity or insufficient level of self-esteem, which is considered to be the root cause of the syndrome.
  • Time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation.
  • Free floating hostility, which can be triggered even over little incidents.

Type A and People

Gordon MacDonald wrote his first edition of Ordering Your Private World while I was in college. In fact, he was finishing it during a visit to speak for a week at my college.  In it, MacDonald describes a driven person (Type A) as one who likes accomplishment, the symbols of it, is generally concerned for one’s own notoriety is caught in an uncontrolled pursuit of expansion, and tends to have a limited regard for integrity.

He also adds that those who are driven tend to have underdeveloped people skills. Just don’t tell any of us that.  Most of us are in the “people business.”  And, ironically, MacDonald came to my campus to speak, but said he wouldn’t have time to meet with students because he had to finish his manuscript.  Not a big deal (though ironic given the book’s focus), but it reveals the irony chronic nature of drivenness.

I chuckle when I hear leaders my age or older speak at conferences to tell the younger folks not to be so driven.  They tell the audience that it’s not the right way to lead, or that they’ve personally learned and changed.  These are easy matters to teach after two decades of drivenness to accomplish early vocational and ministerial goals.  My suspicion is that they/we would do most of it all the same if we did it over again.

I think drivenness (and the Type A personality) gets a bum rap sometimes. I don’t think it’s all bad, an easy thing to say when you are Type A of course.  It’s not the Type A we’re critical of, it’s the impersonal and inappropriate by-products that come with it that we cite as problematic.  The Luke 22 verse has me curious about the 12 disciples of Jesus too. We often paint them as intellectually or spiritually clumsy due to their lack of understanding, and wonder why Jesus picked them. Perhaps they had more drive to accomplish things than we know.  Thus, empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), they were ready and capable to lead the spreading of the Gospel across the world.

Since Type A can be painted as bad, it provides people an excuse to not work hard or take risks. The easier thing to say is “I don’t want to be driven so I won’t work hard.” It’s easier to bury time, talents, & potential in the sands of self-protection & entertainment than risk climbing up to new possibilities. (click to tweet)

Type A and Youth Work

In my field of youth work, Type A folks abound.  Full-time work is one of the most demanding occupations, requiring (for long-term success) a wide set of skills and a persevering personality.   Yet, it’s not a field that gets a lot of societal recognition so the Type A folks often pop up from the field looking for other ways to be known beyond the bounds of youth work or youth ministry.

MacDonald also says that driven people also possess and underdeveloped set of people skills.  That one stings for those of us ministry, but only because it’s close to the target and can often be true (though not always. Here is a nice summary of MacDonald’s thoughts). It causes a reaction from those of us in ministry because we’re in a people-oriented work and to suffer from this would seem counterproductive or immature. Yet many of us do suffer in this area. 

I remember my early years in full-time ministry, gleefully involved in  youth work, the training of volunteers, and even teaching for the national office for my organization.  I was largely unaware of my drive or its accompanying irritation with others.  My times of feeling down I misinterpreted for depression-like issues when they in fact came from my drive and it feeling boxed in … like a racehorse in a stall that would never swing open for the race.

Unchecked, it kept growing and being fed until I came to a junction where I had to address some issues or I’d fizzle out to the side.  Kel and I went through a job change and an accompanying year and a half of letting God fire up his “butane torch” to burn off some dross in our lives.

If you’ve made it this far in the article, let me suggest three things:’

  1. You may have a type-A personality.  And that might not be a bad thing.
  2. You may want to look at how you interact with others, or at least keep that on the radar. Do you know what your tendencies are with others?  Just this week I noticed two familiar patterns emerge and, because I’ve learned about them, my awareness is helping me address what causes those.
  3. You may want to read more about this too, just read things that will help you.  I may suggest books by people who are Type-A and lead in fields similar to you. Most authors write out of their own issues and not all of them are Type-A folks.

I want to be an encouragement to you today.  God has wired you and your personality for a reason, and your social interactions since childhood has given it shape, not all of it bad.  Not all of it good.  Find that God-centered ability to get things done, but with a joyfulness and grace that doesn’t repel others.