Being a business owner and being a member and a committee member in so many organizations, I get a very good look at the process for choosing leadership. The bad news is that it seems to me that most of the time the process looks the same as the playground or the sorority. In other words, leaders are chosen because of charisma, who they know, good looks, style, status or popularity. Very few of the organizations have leaders who were chosen based on the criteria of a good leader. And very few of the organizations for professionals have any formal training for what a leader should look like. When Hillary Clinton, intelligent, articulate and well educated, was running for president many women made comments about the way she dressed. When it comes time to make life and death decisions, I hope to God the person making them isn’t thinking about whether her shoes match her outfit. Remember how popular the movie star president, Ronald Regan, was? We heard reports that he fell asleep during cabinet meetings and that his wife was taking advice from a psychic. How’s that for a leadership choice?
Enough talk about the bad choices. Let’s take a look at the qualities that really need to be considered when making a decision to elect or appoint a leader. Remember when looking to fill any position, from marathon runner to “king of the world,” there are three elements that the person must possess: the natural talent, the requisite, relevant skills and knowledge and the passion. So, first what are the natural talents to look for? Yes, some charisma is necessary, at least enough to get people to listen. Too much charisma, though, usually means that something else is being ignored or covered up. Does the person know how to listen? I mean really listen with empathy. Can they tell you what the organization wants and needs? When “followers” speak, can your leader truly understand them and then prove it by echoing it back and even saying back what was only said “between the lines?” Listening is not just accidental. It is an art and a skill that must be honed constantly. And it is absolutely mandatory for anyone in a leader position to be not merely good at it, but great at it.
How is your leader choice at speaking? They must be an excellent public speaker, able to speak to large groups without pontification, stumbling or nervousness, and they must be able to express their ideas assertively and succinctly. Be very cautious on this last point. There is a fine line between unassertiveness, assertiveness and aggression. I am on a committee with a woman in the community that often gets leader positions and garners respect that I can only guess is due to her “money making” because she is abrasive and whenever she makes points in meetings, she yells them. Remember that this behavior comes from pathology, either the need to be right or the desperate lack of having been heard. Not good leader characteristics! Consider also very carefully that while a person may be well connected and know all the right people, he or she may scare away and/or alienate enough of the “little” people in an organization that the foundation may crumble. I think we can all look back at leaders who drained an organization’s membership roles or who caused good employees to run to other companies. Then there are those on the other end of the assertiveness spectrum, the ones who are known as “nice.” Whenever you hear the descriptor “nice” about a prospect, stop! Unassertive leaders are far more dangerous than aggressive ones because they don’t seem dangerous. Good leaders must have a balance between compassion and toughness. A good bus driver must not tolerate “bad” passengers and he or she must have what it takes to ask them to leave or if necessary even make them leave. While leaders must be likeable, if there is too much focus on not “ruffling feathers,” the bus may go careening off a cliff.
So, let’s assume that you have someone who knows how to listen and knows how to get others to listen and is charismatic enough to draw attention, but not so charismatic that they can’t let go of the attention (nothing worse than a leader who is all about “me, me and me”). Now what? Is this person reliable and do they hold others to a schedule and commitments? Do they balance taking charge and doing jobs with delegating? And when they delegate, do they micromanage or do they give the reins that need to be given to others? Can your leader choice make decisions or do they vacillate between possibilities, unable to take risks? Or do they take so many risks that everyone feels like they are on a carnival ride? Related to this, does your prospective leader gather about the right amount of input and data then make a decision, or does he or she delay decisions by seeking information beyond what is useful? Can your choice of a leader take an idea from conception to completion? Or do they come up with idea after idea and just keep jumping around so that the end result is nothing done and way too many “open” projects? And, finally, does your leader choice have the passion it takes to be a great leader? Does he or she love to lead and to be engaged at that level? Can you see the twinkle in the eyes whenever he or she is at a podium or working on a team project? And is the passion you are seeing about the leadership and not about the “me?”
We now have a fairly complete profile. So when you send a group off to make suggestions for leaders for your organization, do they have a rubric, a book, some training? Do they have anything to guide them in their decision? If not, then your process is flawed. You are probably ending up with leaders who are popular, well-connected, stylish and charismatic, but whose leadership characteristics are secondary or non-existent. Even if your leader nominating committee has some guideline that they are following, have they been trained or counseled in “blink” responses? In other words, do they know how to look beyond the above listed characteristics that humans are automatically attracted to and look for the real leader traits in the people they are considering? In the music world, symphonies now audition musicians behind a curtain because they could not stop the bias toward men playing certain instruments even when they were told not to consider gender. Biases are very strong and must be considered whenever we are making decisions. If you doubt the insidious power of biases, read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. If you or your group is looking at the “package,” then they are probably missing much of what is inside.
Before we end, let’s take a look at the bias toward money and success. It may look on the surface that a person who runs a multimillion dollar business or who has a great deal of money or who builds great empires must be a good leader. Think again. Unless you go inside the machine of the organization, you cannot know whether they are only making a minimum amount of money for that enterprise or whether they are ruining lives just to make money. Maybe a better leader could make ten times the profits or make money while keeping others happy. When looking at the pyramids, you may come to the conclusion that it took great leaders to accomplish such a feat. Until you find out that they were built by slaves!