Could You Recognize a Great Leader if He or She Were Right In Front of You?

July 12, 2011
Knowing the seven attributes of leadership can help you pick the right candidate for the job.

We recently talked with a corporate executive named Kathryn who was reeling. Under constant pressure at work, her mandate was clear: create growth opportunities, reach across the organization and develop new synergies, better ideas, innovation. She was encouraged to hire a new senior manager to help her get there, which she did. Kathryn hired someone that she thought would be a first-rate lieutenant. Yet, another year passed and nothing changed. Kathryn had to fire the manager and start over. She felt frustrated, disappointed, squeezed.

Does this sound familiar?

We're betting it does, because every day you make judgment calls about other people upon whom you will rely to get things done. To a large extent, these people are the key to your business, even to your career. After all, their leadership potential plays a big part in whether you succeed or fail. Picking the right people will propel you and the organization to the top. Picking the wrong ones can be a disaster. What's even more striking is that often there isn't much time to size these individuals up. Personnel decisions must be made quickly.

Are you ready to meet the challenge? Could you recognize a great leader if he or she were right in front of you? Among a slate of four or five potential candidates, could you accurately identify the one who possesses the right stuff?

Unfortunately, most people can't. Even senior HR professionals and board members with years of executive experience at some of the world's best organizations do a poor job of gauging leadership talent. The reason is simple: most people do not know what to look for. As a society, we have come to accept some rather misguided ideas about what counts for leadership success.

The first common mistake we make is to get unduly influenced by an individual's charisma, Ivy-League education, or years of experience. These factors are a poor predictor of leadership effectiveness. For example, a middle manager with a decade of sales experience might be ill-suited for an unfamiliar role that requires mobilizing others beyond her area of expertise. Similarly, a smooth-talking candidate might sound great during an interview, but when a real crisis hits this skill won't equip him to guide others forward.

Leadership Attributes

In our book Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? we explain the seven fundamental attributes that companies should look for when selecting leaders: integrity, empathy, emotional intelligence, vision, judgment, courage and passion. Based on almost two decades of experience working with hundreds of leaders at various organizations and in connection with top executive education programs, we have determined that these qualities are the ones that truly count. These pieces are like the DNA of every effective leader. If even one is missing, real leadership will never last.

For example, former BP CEO Tony Hayward successfully climbed the corporate ladder for more than 25 years. But when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, his leadership faced a stiff challenge. In particular, he needed a strong sense of empathy to deal with an outraged public and a diverse set of competing constituents. Unfortunately, he was not up to the task. During an early interview, he claimed that the oil spill was "relatively tiny" compared with the "very big ocean," and he consistently underestimated the extent of the leak. Obviously the spill wasn't tiny from the vantage point of the Gulf Coast fishermen who lived nearby. Worse was the comment Hayward posted on Facebook to the effect that more than anyone else, he wanted the crisis to be over because, he said, "I want my life back." This quip was widely seen as insensitive to the men whose lives had been lost in the explosion. President Obama responded, "He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements," and although his days were probably already numbered, that was the last straw. Hayward lacked the kind of empathy that leaders need to survive.

The Problem with Looking Back

Of course, knowing what to look for is not enough. Just as important is knowing how to look. When we asked Kathryn how she and her team chose the person who was brought in to join her company, she said: "He [the candidate who was hired] had great experience in the industry, a track record of turning around underperforming businesses, and already had relationships with several of our largest customers." In addition, Kathryn's company hired a search firm that conducted extensive background referencing, and all signs were positive. The candidate was results-oriented, friendly, well liked, and driven.

While these findings sounded good, further investigation on our part revealed that Kathryn fell into some classic assessment traps. The most serious mistake she made was relying on an evaluation process that was essentially backward looking. She spent large amounts of time going over the candidate's rsum and credentials: she asked about prior successes and failures, she asked others how the candidate performed, and so on. But this backward-looking investigation has limited predictive value when trying to determine a candidate's likely success in a fundamentally new position.

We strongly urge organizations to avoid hiring mistakes by using a variety of different techniques, including simulations and case studies, direct observation in group settings, and specially created hypothetical scenarios that test a candidate's leadership potential. This last technique is critical because it is forward looking. Unlike a typical interview question that asks candidates to discuss what happened in the past, these hypothetical situations present candidates with unfamiliar and challenging leadership situations. No amount of preparation or interview savvy will enable a candidate to fudge her answer or game the interview process. When organizations ask us to help them size up leadership candidates, we always include forward-looking, one-on-one case studies. This approach is not only accurate, it is fun. Candidates love the process.

Remember, the next time you want to determine if someone has the potential to be a great leader, focus on two things:

  1. The Right Attributes. Don't get seduced by a charismatic personality or other false indicators of leadership success. Look for the qualities that truly matter.
  2. The Right Assessment Techniques. Don't rely too heavily on backward-looking interview questions or references from people who cannot predict how a potential leader will perform in a fundamentally new position. Instead, use the techniques described in our book.

For more information on how the best companies in the world find first-rate leaders, including how to order Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? visit

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