Leading From the Top

Leading From the Top

Originally posted December 2010

Rory Cellan-Jones’ November 14, 2010 article for the BBC (Can brain scans tell us who makes a good chief executive? Brain scans could reveal leadership ability) got our editorial board thinking about what we have seen as important characteristics of effective leaders.  Cellan-Jones writes: “Neuroscientists and psychologists believe they can make a real contribution to our understanding of what makes leaders tick.”   So until advanced technologies can scan a baby’s brain at birth and let us know if he or she will be a leader or a follower, here are a few things to consider:

1) Leadership is highly situational and cannot be defined in a limited way.  Like an animate organism, a company goes through a lifecycle that bring changes. From start up to decline and all the steps in between, the company’s leaders will help to dictate continued success (or failure).  The characteristics of the individual who will effectively lead a start-up differ from the characteristics of the individual who will effectively lead a mature organization. If the leader does not evolve and develop the skills necessary to address the company’s changing needs, the company will suffer. 

2) Even within those broad strokes of life cycles, the culture of the company can dictate the characteristics necessary for a leader’s success.  Take for example the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. Both are very successful, mature franchises, but their cultures and the style of their leaders (coaches and quarterbacks) could hardly be more different.

 The danger, of course, in determining the characteristics of “good leaders” and applying that with advanced technologies to single out a privileged group of individuals is that it probably won’t work, in part for the reasons discussed above, and in part for two other very critical reasons. 

There is a lot of luck associated with the identification and assent of leaders.  Warren Buffet himself said that his success is fundamentally based on the time and place he was born and raised.   Will the individual with the greatest potential for leadership always be identified?  Absolutely not.  And applying expensive technologies to help determine the best leaders will reinforce an already inequitable system.

Last but not least, the criteria used to identify leaders will be based on the group of leaders in place today.  Will those characteristics be right for the rapidly evolving companies of tomorrow?  Or will reinforcing the “status quo” of leadership characteristics impair the ability of companies to compete in the new and different economies we will face in the future?

As we said on our blog “In His Own Image: How Competency Models Compel Uniformity” recognizing and assessing important and unique talents and capabilities in potential leaders may be difficult for those whose personal and leadership styles provided the basis for existing competency models.  But, competitive advantage does not come from leaving unrecognized leadership talent on the table.

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