Stop Assuming Everyone can be an Effective Leader

In 2019 only 14% of people were engaged at work. Why? Because most leaders are terrible leaders. For decades now we have all been operating under the assumption that anyone can be an effective leader, when this is clearly not the case. 

The profound commercial implications of the pandemic are yet to be realised by the majority of leaders. Let’s take a quick look at executive recruitment for example. Put simply, the skills and experience required to be an effective future leader bares little to no resemblance to that of the past. Looking back for a moment, it’s also very clear that identifying so-called talent of the past was a little ‘hit and miss’…to put it mildly. Employee engagement rates and culture insights aren’t subjective. In Australia, big business got comfortable with employee engagement rates of 14%. Meaning only 14% of employees were engaged with 74% disengaged and a further 15% actively looking to leave (State of the Global Workplace Report, 2019).

In what warped universe does any board hear these figures and press on without embarking on aggressive leadership transformation? Working with hundreds of thousands of people over the past 20 years has shown me that in many organisations, leadership talent identification is flawed if not entirely bogus. I’ve consulted to and worked with so-called leaders who every single person in the company won’t follow. Therefore, not a leader. You can’t lead unless there are those who are willing to follow. Importantly, most of the more common issues associated with these substandard leaders aren’t issues that are treatable or fixable.

Unfortunately, we’re in a world where it’s been popular to say ‘anyone can be a leader’. This has lead to millions of dollars being wasted on leadership training for people who don’t (and can’t) possess the basic personal awareness nor the interpersonal skills to deploy the skills learned. It’s like training a sociopath to be a psychologist. All the frameworks in the world won’t work if the basic foundations of humanity aren’t at a certain level. Sure, everyone can be labelled a leader, and most can follow the rules of leadership, but neither statement suggest that everyone can be an effective leader.

The result?

Millions of people have had to work under poor to extremely poor conditions, leading to engagement rates of 14%. What most people don’t know is that leadership development is a relatively new concept. Essentially starting in the 1940s, the idea that it was possible to train someone to be a leader started with nothing more than an assumption. An assumption that defied logic. Let’s begin with what it takes to influence people to follow you…respect. Is it therefore possible for everyone to be respected? Let’s see… according to a wide range of studies, Ambady and Rosenthal found that observations lasting up to five minutes had an average correlation of r = .39 with subsequent behaviour, which corresponds to 70% accuracy at predicting outcomes… what all of that actually means is that people size one another up very quickly and with reasonable accuracy. This includes, ‘do I respect this person’. 

We all know leaders who are people magnets. They generate respect and loyal followers quickly, often and across broad demographics. I worked with a State Premier who possessed true leadership skills and capabilities, and in Australian politics this is extremely rare. Studying this individual for over a decade I noticed science in action. The more wise humans for centuries recognised that by trying to be the best version of yourself you end up presenting your true self. This is not to be confused with ‘image management’ and presenting characteristics and behaviours that you’d like to possess, but that you intrinsically don’t. This technique does have some positives but the risk of coming across as inauthentic is always a real possibility. In reality competence breeds confidence, confidence breeds control and control kills fear, anxiety and self-doubt, and under all of that lies benevolence, contemplation and consideration.

So, what now?

1. Stop hiring leaders (or anyone) based primarily on competence and experience. There are a raft of profiling tools and profilers who can weed out narcissism, self-interest, arrogance and laziness regardless of someone’s CV.
2. Recognise that 15% engagement levels mean that basically everything you thought you knew about talent identification and recruitment is wrong. Leaders have been letting shareholders, boards, employees and customers down for decades and it’s only been getting worse.
3. Identify leaders who balance the fundamentals: warmth and competence (Social Psychologist, Cuddy)
4. Hire people who demonstrate high levels of equanimity – composure and excellent self awareness and control.
5. Those who listen are generally those with empathy. The generosity associated with listening is a reflection of a person’s capacity to care. Those who talk leave little room to consider others.
6. For the sake of your shareholders, employees and customers, stop hiring people who should never lead.
7. The leaders of the future will be required to have much more advanced people management skills as the world of work unfolds and individuals negotiate their work-life boundaries and concessions. Hiring any leader without assessing their emotional intelligence increases the company’s risk profile.
8. Fire leaders that people don’t trust or respect. Trust surveys are quick and effective tools to weed out poor leaders.
9. Challenge yourself to balance consideration and competence. Work up both your strengths and weaknesses.