What to Look For

Today, as in the past, we anxiously await the emergence of leadership but unfortunately we are often disappointed.  Irrespective of whether leaders are selected or elected, the experience provided falls far short of the experience needed.  We seem to always get much less than what we hoped for.  Far too few of those we find in positions of authority—which erroneously we label leadership—have what it takes to facilitate the needed partnerships for progress.  In spite of our experience, we remain hopeful that the next one we get or select will be the one.  What should we look for?

The Special One

Believing that leadership is for the select few, we make our choices based on things that are not universally available to all.  We look for the special one, the one who is clearly above us all.  After all we’d be foolish to choose a commoner—one lacking charisma, rank, status and appropriate accoutrements.

We choose based on superficial characteristics; things like charisma, or on how one adorns him/her self with the things that symbolize the attainment of privilege and power. I am reminded of the lyrics of a song by the Smothers Brothers that sums it up quite well that went something like this: I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy…if I had an outfit I’d be a cowboy too!

So we seek those with the appropriate trappings commensurate with being of special status, and thus we assume capable of leading us all. Moreover, many seek to acquire the trappings so that they too can be thought of as leaders.  Such a belief merely perpetuates disappointing experiences.

A Matter of Results

Believing that what matters are results, we often base our selection it. This makes logical sense: if we want results then we must select those who, in the past, have delivered results.  If we can’t get the one, then the next best thing is to seek those who have been lieutenants of noteworthy corporate captains who have gotten results—the many lieutenants of Jack Welch come to mind. So we look around for great results and—assuming all cause is linear and local—we then look for the one closest to it.  It’s like the one closest to the accident must have caused it—physical proximity becomes the indicator of capability. Unfortunately, systems thinking and the influence of non-local causes are lost among most.

However if we understand just a little bit about the interaction of forces and the phenomenon of emergence in organizations, then we know that cause is not linear and local.  We know that results come from the system and the effect of one person can’t be separated out from all the other forces in play [That is, we know from basic algebra one equation with more than one unknown is mathematically unsolvable].

Further, from systems theory we know one person acting alone can’t change the system; thus seeking a savior is a fruitless endeavor.  Moreover, researchers have never been able to prove that an organization’s performance is predictable by the traits of its chief executive officer.  Again unfortunately, in spite of the available theory to inform judgment, most often the credit or blame bestowed is misplaced.

Let’s Be Truthful

Often the important meta-decision is glossed over or totally skipped.  Usually in a rush to select the one we hope will save us, we don’t invest time exploring and understanding our unspoken requirements. Our choices miss the target because our understanding of what is needed—and of what would truly be helpful—is misguided.

Like a love-starved person, we tend to look for leadership in all the wrong places. Fundamentally we misplace exterior image—trappings and things—for interior integrity. We seem to gloss over the fact that leadership is an inside job that begins with and emerges from truthfulness.

Truthfulness is not just about telling the truth, it is about being a truthful person, especially to one’s self.  A truthful person could not live with him/her self if he/she was in the practice of saying one thing and yet doing another—duplicity is a disengaging quality.  Moreover, such a person could not perpetuate the belief that he/she was the (sole) cause of his/her organization’s success.  The commonly held assumption that great leaders necessarily have huge a ego is misguided.

At base, truthfulness requires having a sense of self beyond an egoic sense of self—a developed sense of self. It is far more likely for such a person to facilitate the power of a ‘We’ than it is for an egoic ‘Me’ to do so.  And truth be told, it is the performance of the ‘We’, not a ‘Me’ on the top rung of the hierarchy, that has greater influence on an organization’s success—a bad offensive line with a good running back is still a poor running team.

The capability emerging from the synergy in partnership far exceeds the ability in one person. Essentially truthfulness is the basis of the necessary conditions—such as trust, respect, and honesty etc—that make for productive relationships and from which synergy emerges. Therefore, because of the enhanced performance capability emerging from the interaction of forces within an organization we should be seeking synergy, not saviors.

In short, truthfulness is the seed of productive partnership for progress.  Given that truthfulness is the seed from which the fruits of synergy emerge, how can we foster it?

6 thoughts on “What to Look For

  1. Your article is extremely thought provoking and I greatly enjoyed reading it. I hope this contribution helps the debate.

    What are your thoughts on the Military and their selection and development of leadership candidates?

    If you look at General and Secretary of State, Colin Powel as an example, as black American, he was rising through the ranks of the Military whilst segregation was still the norm in the deep south, and in the north the system at that time was still well pitched against him as an African American. There must have been some thing about him that marked him out, what were those qualities?

    As a UK Citizen and patriot, I personally look at the British Forces, but I respect the fact that the American Military are well up there too. Both have produced some incredible leaders, not just high ranking officers but NCOs too.

    Please note I have never served in the Military, but I have worked in the defense industry and met and worked with many Military people on a regular basis,

    It seems me to that some organizations do try and replicate the military but fail, because perhaps their selection criteria lacks the very attributes of leadership your article seeks to identify,

    Would you as a private soldier follow a leader into harms way, f you did not trust their, ability and judgment ?. I appreciate military discipline would not give you a choice, but generally the military has to choose leaders who they know their soldiers will follow else the stockades would be full and desertion rife.

    I am not necessarily saying that all ex servicemen always make the best, civilian mangers or leaders, but many move into industry and commerce with great success.

    Rather than concentrating on power and authority, the military model also seems to set great score not just on personal bravery and courage, but also personal integrity, personal discipline, honesty and truthfulness and personal accountability as well as professional knowledge and ability. There are perhaps also many other attributes such a calmness under pressure, nerve and grit determination,

    In normal civilian, political industrial and commercial life the consequences of poor leadership are not as extreme as death and mutilation. They are however still very severe, millions of people do loose their investments and jobs as a consequence of poor leadership and management People loose their homes, vast tracks of our cities have degraded into wasteland and law and order brakes down.

    In the UK I think we get the political leaders we deserve, because we have allowed the democratic process to descend into farce The selection and election process has more akin to the “Pop Idol” series, than selecting leaders to Govern us for the next 5 years. The media seems to solely concentrate personal trivia rather than demanding answers to tough questions. In some respects in the UK if were truthful you would stand very little chance of ever being elected, because significant proportion of the electorate are so divorced from reality, they do not want to hear the truth.

    I actually fear for the Democratic Process in both our great nations if the issues of identifying good leadership are not developed. I believe true democracy depends on having a well educated and well informed electorate, if the electorate are not how can they see through the bright lights of the public relations machines..

  2. John, your comment [In normal civilian, political industrial and commercial life the consequences of poor leadership are not as extreme as death and mutilation. They are however still very severe, millions of people do loose their investments and jobs as a consequence of poor leadership and management People loose their homes, vast tracks of our cities have degraded into wasteland and law and order brakes down.] I believe highlights the importance of understanding the inner dimensions of leadership.

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