Half the time, we pick leaders for the wrong reasons

Selecting Leaders

From research at Stanford University on hierarchy and leader selection:

Most surprising, the researchers found, was that 45% of the time, team members picked leaders for reasons other than competence, such as the person’s age, dominance, or perceived power level.

That’s probably not that surprising in reality. Let me try to break it down as best I can and in simple terms: choosing “leaders” is a fraught exercise, and you can begin with the base concept. Are leaders really chosen, or do people rise to that role? There’s a huge difference between “leaders” and “managers,” and I think we often forget that. We tend to deify both concepts in a hierarchy, but a leader is more a coach/mentor-type, and a manager is someone that tries to hit deliverables and targets. Those are immensely different things.

The reason it’s not surprising is that … well, people are people. Biases exist, we respond to attractive people more, charisma is a turn-on, we think “leaders” need to be a certain way, we think someone in their 50s should be a manager, etc.

What’s funny is that we spend about 1/3 of the middle part of our lives at work, right? And at the organizational level, we spend about 1/2 the money going out on people and salaries, and yet … despite all of this … we do next-to-nothing in terms of assigning any kind of science back to “who should be leaders” or “who should be promoted.”

It feels weird to spend all that money and all that time and we’re still relying on things like “dominance” — which I doubt can be tracked in a CRM — as a central promoting factor.

Pause and pivot.

There’s a flip side here.

When you promote solely off of competence — and in all honesty, how are you even measuring that? — then you run the risk of promoting people who are good at a specific area. When their bandwidth expands, they may be confused/overwhelmed by new responsibilities, and they may cling even harder to the area they came from.

At the end of the day, you see, the No. 1 thing that senior leaders fear is incompetence. And when you worry about potentially being viewed that way, you start to cling to the areas you already understand. That’s not ideal.

So … how should we promote leaders?

I’ve written a little about this before, but I think the most important things — also hard to measure — are self-awareness and CQ. You need leaders/managers who are curious and introspective, because business needs change all the time on the whim of a CEO or whoever. I know people I’ve worked with (and currently work with) who came in as one thing and, six months later, they’re doing something 177 percent different. Why? Because needs change/revenue models shifted and their boss was like “Well, now you’re doing this!”

When you have a person who isn’t self-aware or curious in that kind of context, they get shifted and instead of stopping and thinking about what’s needed in the new role, they just start chasing targets. That’s bad for the employees that work for them, it’s bad for the company — chasing targets devoid of context helps with revenue only in the short-term — and it’s pretty much bad for everybody.

Besides CQ/self-awareness, I’d go in the other direction and say we need actual metrics on leadership. For a specific company, what makes a leader? What have they done before that seems to correlate to success for their team’s goals? We need to actually care about talent strategy for a second. It can be a strategic advantage, simply because so few companies actually focus on it. Most companies do the same stuff as competitors — chase margins, revenue, new products, whatever.

What if your people and actually knowing your people was an advantage you could use?


Ted Bauer

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