Identifying Great Leaders

The Science of Identifying & Nurturing Great Leaders

The science of leadership is a well-established field. However, the key discoveries in this field are unfamiliar to many professionals who are involved in identifying, nurturing and hiring the best leaders. This lack of knowledge about the science of leadership helps to explain some of the alarming statistics about leadership ineffectiveness such as:

Identifying Great Leaders
  • Research indicates that 30% – 60% of leaders engage in destructive behaviours. Destructive behaviours include repeated and systematic acts of tyranny, strategic bullying, abusive supervision, coercive power and verbal abuse to name a few.
  • According to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, nearly 40 percent of all leaders fail within their first 18 months on the job.
  • Over 50% of employees quit their job because of their managers.
  • A large global survey of employee attitudes toward management suggests that a whopping 82% of people don’t trust their boss.

The Generic Personality Traits of the Best Leaders

The best leaders tend to have high levels of integrity which allows them to create a fair culture. By contrast, deceitful leaders quickly lose the support and trust of their team. Research shows above all that followers value integrity and honesty in their leaders. Leaders who are caught lying, particularly if they don’t apologise or accept that they lied, will lose the trust of their followers. The best leaders also tend to have high levels of emotional intelligence which allows them to get along with people and respond appropriately in stressful situations. Leaders who lack this emotional intelligence are often disliked and/or misunderstood. The best leaders also tend to have higher than average levels of sociability, adjustment and curiosity. These are some of the generic personality traits of successful leaders.

Leadership Success is About Cultural Fit

Even when organisations are good at analysing a leader’s generic capabilities ( e.g. their skills, their skills and generic leadership capabilities), they forget that an essential element to leadership success is the level of congruence between the leader’s motives and values and the values of the organisation. As a result, many leaders are hired for talent but fired for lack of fit.

To identify this fit, you need to understand your own culture and the motives and values of the potential leader. For example, altruistic leaders will want to drive progress in the world and improve other’s people’s lives and they will struggle in an environment that is solely driven by profits and disinterested in having a positive social impact. To give another example, leaders who value tradition will have a strong sense of what is right and wrong, will prefer hierarchical organizations, and will have little tolerance of disruption and innovation – put them in a creative environment and they will struggle. There are some leaders who will be able to excel in all environments but they are the exception rather than the norm. For the majority of people, leadership success is somewhat context-dependent.

Identifying Leadership Derailers

Leadership derailment is where a leader fails to reach their potential due to an overused strengths or dark-side qualities. What many organisations overlook is that although it is important to help leaders to capitalise on their strengths, these strengths can become weaknesses when they are taken too far. Most of us can point to a leader who has taken a strength too far – the supportive boss who cuts his subordinates a bit too much slack, or the talented leader whose relentless drive leads to hypercontrol. But it is much more difficulty for leaders to see these derailers in themselves. For example, many excessively supportive leaders will think that their supportiveness is a strength and so long as it is not excessive, it is a strength . According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, taking a strength to an extreme is almost always detrimental to performance.

This is just one reason why leadership development interventions need to highlight weaknesses in order to help the leaders keep their potentially damaging tendencies in check.

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