Real Leaders

These are the Raw Ingredients of Strong Leaders

One red sphere leading a group of white spheres passing through a frame on blue background.

One of the greatest tactics a business can employ to ensure sustained success is to crack the mystery of choosing strong leaders. Strong leaders make the difference in many measures of success, such as financial results, employee recruitment and retention, development of talent, and consistent execution, among others.

Conversely, poor leaders have a toxic impact on people and results. The financial, strategic, and human costs of poor leadership are frankly staggering. Consider just the amount of money spent on helping leaders be better is somewhere in the neighborhood of $366 billion. The kicker is that those costs are unnecessary because much of that money is being spent on developing the wrong people!

But poor leadership is a rampant problem. Look around. We’re surrounded by inept, self-focused, under-skilled people in leadership roles. Even many HR practitioners have it wrong when they assert that their organizations are strong in choosing employees with the potential to be strong leaders. The results and people’s experiences simply don’t support this assertion.

The bottom line is organizations place too many leaders in roles that aren’t a fit. Fixing the issue of poor leaders requires that we solve the root cause. In essence, those in the position of determining strong potential leaders are inept at identifying the right people to become strong leaders. The process is widely treated as an imprecise art and processes are inconsistently applied. Tremendous variation exists in the way it’s done — even within the same organization, and in the same team! How can we develop a consistent, reliable, and robust pipeline of leaders that acquire important proficiencies at each leadership turn if everyone is using a different criterion? We can’t, and that’s a core piece of the problem. Not only are we looking for the wrong criteria, but the tremendous amount of variation further complicates the process.

How can we be better at identifying and cultivating potential leaders? How can organizational leaders ensure that those they are developing have the raw ingredients that will make them strong leaders?

A recommended difference-maker is to have a clear framework that drives the thinking and action steps for accurately determining leadership potential. One highly endorsed framework is the Leadership Blueprint developed by Alan Church and Rob Silzer (2014). This resource was constructed through a unique set of work that combined extensive academic research and compelling pragmatic experience. The Leadership Blueprint has three dimensions. The first considers leadership qualities that are largely unchangeable — intelligence and personality. In terms of intelligence, we can become more knowledgeable, but we can’t increase our cognitive skills. It’s essential to choose smart people to become leaders because the world only becomes more complex the more responsibilities they assume in an organization.

The second quality in this dimension, personality, is also largely considered fixed. Think about someone who is maniacal about details. That largely isn’t going to change. But that person will struggle as a leader to operate at the appropriate level. Other core derailing qualities are extreme selfishness, lack of focus, condescension, ineffective communicators, narcissism and other personality traits that cause employees’ frustration or harm. Yet many with traits such as these are placed in leadership roles.

If leadership candidates pass the blueprint’s first threshold, the next dimension considers their motivational levels and learning agility. These are two quintessential factors for leader success, but in both, the individual controls them. If the candidates don’t already possess motivation and learning agility, no amount of cajoling will improve them.

Essentially, the third dimension of the Leadership Blueprint highlights the criticality of being a functional expert and/or having deep leadership acumen. The difference with this dimension is that the components here are teachable if the person already has high intelligence, motivation, learning agility, and no major derailing personality traits. For example, we shouldn’t select someone who is malicious to be a leader just because they know how to delegate. We can teach someone who fulfills the four critical criteria how to delegate.

The root cause of our current leadership crisis is that we’re choosing the wrong candidate profile from the start. The proven guidance provided in the Leadership Blueprint can help provide predictable criteria and greatly elevate the leadership talent game.

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