Identifying leaders

Why We Need to Rethink What Makes a Great Leader

Companies of all sizes rely on leaders to motivate teams, manage evolving trends and drive business growth. Given the massive impact that leaders can have on organisational performance, it is no surprise that since 2013, leadership has been identified as the top trend for Irish organisations. Organisations of all sizes are trying to work out the best way to identify and nurture the most effective leaders. However, according to Dr.Robert Hogan (CEO of Hogan Assessments Systems), we need to rethink how we judge leaders. Given that Dr.Hogan leads an organisation that has helped half of the Fortune 500 hire the right people, build leaders and develop employees, few people have greater expertise in this area.

What makes a great leader?

According to Dr.Hogan, “65% of the top guys in the US will fail because they are deeply flawed in some way. The proportion is so high because of the way people assess leadership.” He believes that the first step to drastically reduce this failure rate is to assess the criteria that we use to identify leaders. “The most important leadership quality is the ability to build and maintain a high functioning team. That means you judge a leader not by his or her individual qualities, but by the performance of their team. There are a number of things that can be said to make a good leader, based on data, and one of the most important is how a person is perceived by the people who work for them” he says.

In relation to the qualities of great leaders, Dr.Hogan believes integrity and decisiveness are the most important ones. He stresses that “you don’t want someone who is asking where’s mine? You want someone who doesn’t lie, who doesn’t play favourites and doesn’t play politics. Some people, including past US presidents, have status but no integrity. You also need to look at decisiveness, the ability to make good decisions quickly with little data. You need people who can identify what to do and who should do it.”

The story of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling illustrates the importance of integrity. Jeffrey was a high-achiever who rose the top and he was driven to achieve results by any means. Jefrrey pitted managers against each other and he once praised an Executive who went behind his back to create a service he had forbidden her to develop. This lack of integrity and ethics eventually led to Enron’s infamous downfall.

The Tension of Leadership

The Enron story also illustrates that in pressurised situations, the boundaries between strengths and weaknesses are blurred. The drive and ambition that brought Jeffrey to the top became so ruthless that the organisation had no integrity.

Dr. Hogan understands the tension of leadership and that how individuals manage the balance between selfishness and altruism can determine their success as a leader. “All good leaders must want to be a leader, but the notion of the charismatic or narcissistic leader is a myth. People want humility in their leaders. A good leader must have the heart of a servant in order to make good decisions and put the right people in the right place within their business” he stresses.

How Do We Predict Leadership Performance?

According to Dr.Hogan “‘Leadership goes wrong if a team is performing poorly. Employee ratings of their bosses are a good proxy for the performance of a team. We will survey the workforce for any company that has the courage to ask those questions. The behaviour of the boss drives the morale of the team, which drives performance and improves customer service ratings,’ he adds.

Predicting the performance of a good leader is about the continuous assessment of an individual that is responsible for a team. It is about asking the right questions and honing in on the right issues.

“You need to know whether a person is interested in the fate of their career or the fate of their organisation. If they are worried about the organisation then they are focused on leadership. If not, they are self-aggrandising. In the current economy you need good leadership more than ever, but big companies are often run by accountants, so things are done just on the basis of cost-cutting,” Hogan remarks.

Another factor that Dr.Hogan believes predicts leadership success in large organisations in particular is breadth of experience in different business contexts and environments. Siloed knowledge about one business area can lead to other areas of the business being neglected. Given that large organisations work effectively when different functions and skills coordinate effectively, a leader with a broad background in different contexts will be most able to understand and translate different functions and perspectives into a coherent team.

N.B. The extended version of this post was originally published on

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