Unlikely Leaders: Virtuosos (ISTPs) in Charge

Darrell’s avatar

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”


Leadership isn’t tied to just a select few personality types. Anybody can lead, if they understand their strengths and focus on them. Not all will do the things that typical leaders do. But that might mean that they have a different skill set and can accomplish things that many other leaders cannot.

Detached but Flexible

Virtuosos (ISTPs) may consider having to deal with other people as a burden that inhibits their progress. Repeatedly, our surveys (like this one) show us that Virtuoso personalities have strong preferences for being alone. For example, most of them say that when caught in a dilemma, they would choose to work things out independently. None of these results mean that Virtuosos are fundamentally unfriendly. They can be nice enough, but they prefer to be friendly from a distance.

While they are good at solving problems and using hands-on skills to fix things, they are likely to glaze over a challenge if it becomes too intangible and theoretical. They may possess the intelligence but not the interest. They are unlikely to find theories of management and business helpful.

A Virtuoso (ISTP) personality type wielding a power drill.

And rules? Rules teeter on the edge of being disposable, if they get in the way of a solution that this stubborn personality type is pursuing. A manual of protocols might gather dust in the office of a Virtuoso leader.

Paradoxically, Virtuosos often dig in their heels to preserve their cherished solutions, despite having found their unique solutions by being flexible in the first place. They can switch from stubborn to adaptable and back again as the situation calls for it.

Virtuosos are unlikely to seek a leadership position. When they end up in one, the reason is often the incentives that go with the role or other benefits that solve personal problems for them. That doesn’t mean that these personalities are so mercenary that they don’t take their work seriously. They are above average in agreeing that a leader is held to higher standards, showing a measure of seriousness associated with leadership roles in the minds of many Virtuosos.

As unlikely as a match between a Virtuoso and a leader’s role may seem on paper, the wise boss might want to take a second look. While not an orthodox choice, Virtuoso personalities have unique qualities that can work with the right organization and the right job culture in the right place at the right time.

What, then, are Virtuosos’ strengths and weaknesses when they take the helm? Let’s first break down their leadership style.

Leadership Styles and Virtuoso Personality Types

An early social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, broke leadership types into three fluid categories: the authoritarian style, the democratic style, and the laissez-faire style. Every leader prefers a particular approach but may find it necessary to borrow from the other types, as uncommon circumstances demand a different approach. When we talk about a person in charge having a style, we mean mostly, not exclusively.

With an authoritarian preference, the leader keeps control and issues marching orders. The expectation is that those who follow this leader will be compliant. Virtuosos’ leadership style is not warm and fuzzy, and these personality types might not share the rationale for their decisions as much as another leader might. Their detachment could give Virtuosos’ methods an authoritarian aura as they deliver instructions and goals without taking the time to consult others.

Beyond appearance, Virtuosos may find exerting a little clout easier than engaging in the back-and-forth that a more democratic style might entail. A slightly authoritarian style could work for them, but being autocratic is not likely their primary style. It demands that they control others more than they would like to be controlled themselves. This obvious inconsistency in their approach to life might impinge on a sense of fairness and make them uncomfortable.

Contrary to the authoritarian style, a democratic leader seeks opinions from all involved and bases their decisions on the majority’s opinion. Everyone gets in on the decision-making. That doesn’t mean that the democratic leader necessarily feels obligated to accept the group’s idea, but the leader does consider any input.

As our research shows us, Virtuoso personalities are much more comfortable flying solo when deciding matters. If they have a choice, they are unlikely to arrange a gathering designed primarily to form a consensus. During the few meetings that these leaders call voluntarily, the agenda may lean toward announcing decisions rather than reaching an accord. So we can scratch this concept off as a primary force behind Virtuosos’ style.

Virtuosos are more likely to take a hands-off approach. The laissez-faire leadership style is one where total freedom is given to those who follow. There’s a reasonable degree of trust involved in this approach, with the leader relaxing into the idea that their team will do the right thing. Virtuosos might gravitate toward this style because of their love of independence.

In most cases, Virtuosos will adopt the laissez-faire approach as their primary mode of leadership. They may employ a small amount of the authoritarian style when it helps them keep their comfort zones intact. After a fashion, Virtuosos lead the same way they live.

Do you want to know more about your style of leadership? We invite you to take our Leadership Styles and Leadership Styles II tests to fine-tune your understanding of your personality and to explore your preferred leadership approach.

What Does a Virtuoso Leader Look Like?

So, what do Virtuosos have going for them as leaders?

What Works for Virtuoso Leaders


Virtuosos are always thinking. They are experimenters who try different things – according to their interests and at their own pace. Nonetheless, these personalities do like to solve problems. Should a company be drowning in challenges and setbacks, a Virtuoso individual might be the person to call on for leadership.

A Virtuoso (ISTP) personality type dressed as an aviator.

As mentioned above, they usually have no interest in solving the typical organizational problems that leaders often tackle. But, in truth, people reluctantly do what is needed from them on the job all the time. Having little or no attraction to solving more intangible problems does not necessarily mean that Virtuosos have no talent at overcoming such obstacles. Problem-solving, no matter what kind, involves basic steps that are relatively universal across all challenges.

Virtuosos don’t have as much of a hunger for knowledge when compared to other Thinking personality types, but they can usually fill any gaps when they need information. They can be very resourceful in the right situation.


The thing about living independently is how little one ends up getting entangled in the affairs and concerns of other people. This distance can allow Virtuoso personalities to make decisions that are right for the endeavor, without other team members’ individual or personal issues playing a role.

While a downside to such remoteness exists, which we’ll discuss below, deciding matters based on objective considerations can be incredibly efficient. If, for example, the problem in an organization involves conflicts caused by methodological or values-based differences, who better to cut through such office politics with unbiased practicality than Virtuoso leaders? Since they remain detached, muddying the waters with favoritism or social pressure is less likely. They have what is needed to make tough decisions that other personality types may have no stomach for.


As we’ve already discussed, flexibility can be a mixed bag for Virtuosos. These personalities sometimes have a stubborn streak that can derail any flexibility that they might typically display. However, our research shows that, in many situations, Virtuosos are comfortable with and unbothered by change. Having a leader who exhibits a quiet calm during a storm of instability can be an asset.

Virtuosos prefer working with a smaller group, and that may also appeal to their sense of flexibility. A group with fewer people can go in another direction more quickly than a larger crew. What they lack in numbers, they make up for with agility.

Areas That May Need Attention

Interpersonal Considerations

When it comes to developing a portrait of the Virtuoso leader, the elephant in the room is their almost reclusive lifestyle. To lead, one must have people who willingly follow. An absentee laissez-faire manager may appear as though they don’t care about the people who work with them.

When grumbling exists among the ranks, accessibility to the leader can make a substantial difference in resolving issues and can lead to more satisfactory outcomes. People aren’t going to invest in any project if they don’t believe that their efforts are appreciated. A Virtuoso will rarely spend time at the watercooler sharing stories from their personal lives.

Regular, informal feedback can go a long way toward making employees feel noticed and valued. The words “great job” can make a dramatic difference.


As team leaders, Virtuosos need to resist the impulse to go it alone. Virtuoso personalities may not value the idea of a team. If they need to, they can learn team-building techniques, but their heart will never be in it. It’s hard to promote what you don’t respect.

That said, if they observe a need for a coordinated and cohesive group, Virtuosos might approach it like they do any other problem. While not heartfelt and perhaps void of “team spirit,” a mechanical facsimile of a team with an efficient division of labor is possible.

Minding Protocols

Our research consistently suggests that Virtuosos treat rules more casually than most personality types. This loose regard for the rules may just be another expression of independence. They may not necessarily think that they’re above the prevailing standards – more likely, they believe that the rules don’t work for them, pragmatically. Bending the rules is simply a practical matter for Virtuosos.

For a leader, this is easier to get away with if they are at the top of the food chain. When they have superiors they must answer to, it might not be easy to overlook set standards. If they’re not careful, ignoring established standards can put both them and their team in tricky situations. While Virtuosos may consider rules as something made to be broken, often they are in place for a good reason, and ignoring that good reason may have consequences.

See You at the Top, Virtuoso

If you’re a Virtuoso, you probably aren’t in love with the idea of taking up the mantle of leadership. That very sentiment may be the thing that keeps you from having romantic notions about the role and may bolster your no-nonsense approach to getting things done. But there are likely many groups that need a leader who is as practical as you are.

See you at the top.

And don’t forget to take the specialized leadership tests in our Career Tools & Assessments. These assessments are your opportunity to go deeper.

Further Reading