How the Enneagram Affirmed My Desire to Lead

I’ve jumped aboard the Enneagram train, and I’m pulling the chain to make it whistle. “This again?” my husband asks, when I tell him I’m going to discuss it with my boss in regards to my professional development.

To my younger self, I say:

“You remember the scary parts of yourself that you hated? The critical parts that you packed down inside and slapped cement over? Their flip side is they’re part of what makes you a leader.”

The Enneagram test I took, one I was assured was statistically reliable at the cost of $12, assessed me as a One—the Reformer, someone who views systems and wants to fix them.

That assessment was one I avoided when I was first introduced to the Enneagram during my PhD studies. I couldn’t be a One. The One was critical about processes she recognized as ineffective. The One got angry.

I gave up trying to determine a label, but in the last few years, my writing friends embarked on the Enneagram train. I took a free assessment and began calling myself a Four (the Individualist), which fits many writers. The Four category does align with my personality in regards to my melancholy, fear of defectiveness, and occasional overwhelming bouts with envy. But it doesn’t explain my strengths: my energy around my job as a department chair in work with systems and people.

It doesn’t explain why when I was recovering from a mastectomy this winter, I cried watching a show where a group of colleagues sat around a table strategizing how to solve a problem. That’s what I missed the most about my workplace. Then I woke up to this:

The Enneagram assessment has helped me to recognize my private fear.

The fear is that I’ll revert to the young woman who was full of anger stemming from the secret dysfunction of a family with alcoholism and drug addiction. An anecdote from my late teens comes from my four summers of employment at a Christian camp, a not-so-subconscious way to escape disruptiveness at home. A different director arrived each week to lead the counselors for ministering to that week’s grade range of campers. These directors, usually pastors and other church leaders, many from small, rural communities, often didn’t know how to organize and guide one hundred or so young campers. As I became more experienced, I grew frustrated at the directors with the weakest leadership skills.

I hid my emotions, until one night I vented to a staff member younger than I. In the twilight, we sat between the girls’ cabins and the pond, noisy with insects, adjacent to a field for cattle grazing. I couldn’t see her face in the darkness, but I could hear the surprise in her voice as she responded. She looked up to me as senior staff. Without her saying it, I knew my outburst had disappointed her.

Later in college, when I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I balked at the label INTJ, the Mastermind. It was offered with an explanation that a fellow INTJ was World War II General George S. Patton. Was I at heart not only angry and critical but also controlling?

Afterwards, when my friend from my PhD program brought up the One type on the Enneagram, I shook it off.

I’m embracing these labels now—a little tentatively.

No exam can entirely capture the personality of an individual, making sense, for example of both my introversion and my interest in people socially. Or even the change of personality over time—after I went through counseling, I tested as an INFJ—“feeling oriented” rather than being “thinking oriented” as in the INTJ. Sometimes I believe it depends on the matter at hand and the day whether I’m enacting the “F” for feeling or the “T” for thinking.

The Enneagram, and even my original assessment for the Myers-Briggs, has helped me to name a strength, one I mentioned in my recent performance review—the ability to see how systems could be improved. It was something I’d been afraid to name because I once questioned my desire to lead in making changes as being self-righteous and controlling.

Another strength according to the Enneagram is that a One’s motivation to action happens out of her gut—a strong sense of right and wrong. I am able to have integrity while working with others through God’s help. At the same time, the Enneagram hasn’t let me get away with assuming I’ve got it all figured out, and it reminds me that when I’m frustrated, I tend toward anger. At my worst, I sink to the negative qualities of a Four I already mentioned.

I have found that a part of me I wanted dead still lives.

And in the faithfulness of time and healing, God has said it’s not perfect, but it is good.

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson