The Australian opposition just selected as new leader, and the UK Tories are currently starting the process of finding a leader to replace Ms. May and take them forward. It is likely that the people selected for these roles are not chosen on their ‘ability to lead’, but rather may other elements. In a ‘perfect world’, how do we go about assessing leadership, both in current leaders and leadership aspirants? In truth, people are routinely terrible at identifying and selecting great leaders. Whilst we are desperate to identify them, install them and even emulate them, knowing what will make a great leader is fraught with human error.
In our desire to find and become great leaders, we often get sucked into the myth that is the cult of leadership.
Why are we suckers for the cult of leadership?
Humans seem to have a need to raise onto pedestals people who we think – and who we want to be seen as – great leaders. We have a social need within groups to identify ‘leaders’ – those people who are ‘most representative’ of the group, and identify the person who will offer us certainty I what to do, and reduce the need for us to have to expend cognitive energy when we can simply follow someone else. A leader helps anchor who we are, the group we exist in, and provides that focal point that gives us comfort of belonging.
We are therefore built to look for and admire leaders. This gets us into trouble, as we use biases, distortions and mental shortcuts as we evaluate leaders (and potential leaders). These fundamental errors ensure that we often end up with poor outcomes and the wrong person given the leadership role.
What makes a good leader?
Take a moment and consider this question – who do you think is a great leader? What specifically makes them a great leader?
Imagine you had a field of candidates in front of you, and you had to select a leader from them. How would you decide who should get the gig?
When you ask people this in workshops, the usual answers come back:
- They have proven themselves as leaders elsewhere.
- They have gotten results
- They are charismatic and are great with people
- They have strong ‘EQ’
- They are experts in their field.
- They have great ‘instincts’.
What else did you have to add to this list?
The truth about leadership – beyond the myth.
The Australian Opposition did not seek the best leader, they chose based upon factional politics. The Tories in the UK are grappling with finding a great leader at such an important time, yet from all the candidates, is there a good leader amongst them?
We make so many ‘human errors’ when evaluating leadership that cause us to made bad leadership choices, which include:
Outcome bias: The outcome may not have been generated by the leader, but rather luck or circumstance. We want to give credit/blame for outcomes to people, rather than open our view to the role of luck or circumstance. We like to believe that if someone gets great results, they must be a great leader. On a random selection, most people will get good results some of the time. When we judge a leader based upon what they have achieved, remember to consider that luck and circumstance may have played a big part in their previous successes, and their next failure (regression to the mean) may be on your project.
Hindsight and justification bias. Rather than assessing the leader on what they set out to do, based upon what happened, people can craft very plausible stories as to what happened, especially embellishing the leader’s role. We are great at conferring success on the leader and failures on the circumstances. Rather than assessing ‘how’ something happened, we look for the ‘why’, are happy with simple explanations and want to allocate successes to human actions. This means we rarely hold leaders to account in unbiased ways.
The true test is in the quality of decisions and behaviours in getting to the outcome.
The leadership instinct myth. Do you believe that a great leader has superior instincts? An instinct is a ‘feeling’ that the leader generates, and then uses to decide on a course of action. Unfortunately, this locks leaders into searching for a ‘feeling’ before taking action, and to not approaching novel circumstances on their merits (but needing the old feeling to help them decide). This is a dreadful way to lead, and suggesting that their ‘feelings’ (instincts) are somehow valuable in decision making is akin to trusting your newspaper horoscope. Emotional reasoning and self assessment bias will have massive consequences on leadership decision making, neither of which is healthy or positive.
The great listener myth. Are leaders great listeners? The big questions are – who do they take advice from, when do they have enough information to act; and who do they ignore? The gathering of valuable, high quality information is a powerful leadership skill. However, too many leaders surround themselves with ‘Wormtongues’ or ‘yes men’, or else don’t know when to stop listening and start acting. How does the leader determine the quality of the information relative to the decision? Also, often leaders ‘listen’ to respond, or to confirm what they are already thinking.
Charisma and the halo effect. We are drawn to charismatic types, often because of the certainty they project (see below). We will often use the ‘Halo effect’ bias to take a characteristic of the person, and believe it holds true across all of their personal domains. So someone who is a successful leader in business is assumed to be a great leader in politics. Someone who is admired as a celebrity is automatically admired as a leader. Charisma is a terrible way to select for leadership, because it automatically clouds our judgement as we stare at their powerful ‘halo’.
The fallacy of certainty shows up in leadership, and charismatic leadership, all of the time. The most certain person appears to be the leader, as certainty sells, and in times of uncertainty people will take the certainty of another as a way to enhance their own confidence in the outcome. It is why a hustle is often called a ‘confidence trick’. It sells confidence and certainty, even where it may not be appropriate for there to be any. Leaders that are overly certain are appealing, but this creates problems of not being open to listen or experiment.
The myth of ‘High EQ’. Whilst it is important for people to have high EQ when working with others, sometimes a great leader has to make tough calls for the good of the group or project. If they cannot flex from high EQ to low EQ, leaders might avoid the tough call and avoid taking valuable action in case it ‘upsets’ someone.
The competence conundrum. This is where context in leadership is so important. If the building is on fire, then the fireman is the best leader. If you want to invest in the sharemarket, then their leadership may be less value to you. Leadership often has high levels of context dependence and specific domain knowledge, and often leadership is simply not transferable from one domain to the other.
So if these are the errors we make in selecting and judging leaders, what can we do differently? It is important because we see so many examples where the wrong person is chosen to lead, based upon their charisma, previous outcomes or instincts.
Leadership as a contextual behavioural model.
Leadership is described in so many interesting ways, however we make terrible, low quality assessments of people as leaders that play directly into this myth.
If we were to properly characterise leadership to escape the cult and the myth, it would be as: an ‘adaptive set of behaviours delivered in a specific context’ relevant to improve the performance of a group by finding new ways to evolve current processes.
A bit wordy, but meaningful. Because:
- Leadership is not management
- Leadership is about changing current practice to evolve the business and generate better performance.
- Leadership is specific to the context, and reliant on the circumstances. Most leadership is domain specific, with context and circumstances important elements in outcome, with skills (not traits or attributes of a leader) transferable.
- Each change requires different adaptations unique to this change that is being led. It is an independent decision point, without knowledge of the success of the leader or of history prior to this decision.
- Past performance is no indicator of how the leader will function this time around.
- Recognising the uncertainty in which decisions are made and not needing certainty is a critical skill for leading.
- High quality decision making in uncertainty is at the heart of high quality leadership.
So as you select a leader, evaluate a leader’s performance, or decide you want to be like some charismatic leadership figure, please pay attention to the human desire to buy in to the myth and cult of leadership. If you can park that, and truly assess leadership through a behavioural lens, you just might find the best leader within the group, or within yourself.
To find out more about selecting or evolving the true skills of leadership beyond the myth, contact Philip Owens at The Bigger Game now.