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What We Really Know About Leadership (But Seem Unwilling to Implement)
by Gordy Curphy, Robert Hogan, and Joyce Hogan

Leadership is an enormously important topic, and one that almost everyone is interested in. It is the focus of most water cooler conversations, dinner parties, board meetings and media publications. It is also a big business—literally billions of dollars go towards recruiting, hiring, and developing leaders each year. Yet despite all this interest and investment, what do we really know about leadership? In other words, what are the most reliable and consistent findings about what it takes to hire and develop good leadership talent? Surprisingly enough, much of what we actually know is either wrong or is ignored by people in positions of power. The purpose of this article is to describe the top ten things the research actually tells us about hiring and developing good leadership talent, why these findings are ignored, and what companies need to do in order to capitalize on this work.

Assumptions and Observations. Before getting into our top ten list, it may be useful to describe some of our assumptions and observations about leadership. First and foremost, we have a distinct point of view about leadership that is grounded primarily in the real demands of getting something done. We believe the ends of leadership is getting results through others; the means is through building and maintaining high performing teams. Leaders exist to make things happen, and they need the knowledge and skills necessary to make things happen through others rather than getting tasks accomplished themselves. We understand that people may quibble with this definition, but we do believe leadership is all about achieving goals, and coordinated groups of people will get better results than individuals working by themselves. We also find it curious that only a handful of organizations, consulting firms, or leadership researchers actually take a stand on what leadership is. Even if our definition is not “correct”, it should at least help to sharpen the discussion of this important topic.

Another assumption we have about leadership is that it is more a function of personal characteristics than a function of the situation. This debate has raged for years in academic circles, yet many of the folks advocating the situation perspective are the same ones who spend entirely too much time worrying about who the next chair of their department will be. As we have all too regrettably seen at HealthSouth, Arthur Anderson, Parmalat, and numerous mutual fund companies, what leaders bring to the table in terms of experience, skills, abilities, values and personality traits does matter. Having all the right attributes is no guarantee of leadership success, but it does considerably improve the odds.

Having decided that leadership is the function of personal characteristics, the next question is “What are the characteristics associated with effective leadership?” Here matters begin to get seriously murky. As stated earlier, the published literature on leadership is immense and growing daily. This literature falls neatly into two camps, which we call the Troubadour Tradition and the Academic Tradition. The Troubadour Tradition is by far the largest. It consists of such amiable works of pop fiction as the Leadership Lessons of Ghengis Khan, Leadership Lessons of Jesus Christ, and Lincoln on Leadership.  It also consists of the opinions and score-settling reminiscences of countless former CEOs. These works are high on entertainment value, but are so context specific that it can be difficult to derive defensible generalizations from them.

On the other hand, the Academic Tradition contains many empirical nuggets—little gems such as “Leaders tend to be slightly taller than followers.” Although this is actually a statistically valid finding, from the leadership practitioner perspective many of these insights are trivial and not particularly useful. Part of the problem here is that most academic researchers have little if any real leadership experience. They may oversee a handful of graduate students or lead a small research team, but most have never managed a P&L, started up a new business, fired an employee, or led a large scale organizational change effort. This lack of real leadership experience, the pressure of publishing, and the fact that most academic leadership research is written in highly technical formats, results in most of this research being of little value to leadership practitioners.

The Top Ten List. Despite the shortcomings of both the Troubadour and Academic Traditions, there are some findings that appear across the two sets of literature that are both consistent and of value to leadership practitioners. And the more rigorous academic research provides ample evidence that leaders and organizations adopting these findings tend to be much more effective. These ten findings are not particularly earth-shattering, but it is noteworthy that few companies consistently adopt all these leadership practices. This is surprising, as these practices: (a) are not affected by market forces and are under an organization’s direct control; (b) tend to be fairly inexpensive; and (c) result in higher performing leaders and organizations. These ten findings significantly improve the odds for hiring, developing and promoting good leaders and have a high ROI, yet companies seem much more likely to build a new manufacturing facility or install a new CRM platform than change their leadership practices. Our top ten list is as follows:

Top Ten Leadership Findings

Top Ten Leadership Findings

1.  A Leader is a Leader is a Leader… Well over 8,000 books and articles have been written about leadership. Although marketers like to emphasize the distinctiveness of their publications, in reality there is remarkable consistency across both the Troubadour and Academic literature on those attributes associated with effective leaders.  Effective leaders tend to take stress well, paint a vision and develop strategies to make their vision become reality, solve problems, set high goals and work hard to achieve them, portray a sense of self-confidence, get along with others, build teams, follow-through with commitments and adhere to ethical standards, and plan and organize work.  These attributes are no guarantee of leadership success, but they improve the odds of leaders building high performing teams that achieve results.

What is even more interesting about this finding is that the characteristics associated with effective leadership are surprisingly similar across industries and cultures. Companies and countries seem to want to ride the “we are different” bandwagon and gladly pay big dollars to consultants to tell them they are, in fact, different, but in reality the basic building blocks of leadership are very consistent. What constitutes good leadership in a Chinese manufacturing facility is often more similar than it is different from what constitutes good leadership in a French agricultural coop or an American internet company.

2.  Individual Differences Matter. Individual differences are the numerous ways in which people differ, and an overwhelming amount of research tells us that a leader’s raw intelligence, personality traits, and values do matter. Although the role of intelligence has been discounted by some of the advocates of emotional intelligence, the bulk of the evidence shows that smarter people are better able to make connections between seemingly unrelated data, think through the implications of their decisions, make better decisions, and get up to speed more quickly than people who are less smart.  (Conversely, think of a job where dumber people make better leaders.) The research also shows that certain personality traits and values also matter—more effective leaders seem better at handling stress, set higher goals, better organize work and get along with others, and work harder to get ahead and make an impact than less effective leaders.

Although we know how to reliably assess these characteristics, most organizations do not use mental ability, personality, or values assessment as part of their hiring or succession planning processes. Many hiring managers falsely believe they are good judges of talent and fall victim to what we like to call “the judgment of character bias”. These managers are more likely to use “fire side chats” than rigorous screens of leadership talent, and often times hire leaders with exceptional technical and social skills and unknown leadership qualities. As a result, a sizable percentage of people in leadership positions appear to be technically competent but charismatically challenged.

3.  The Rate of Leader Incompetence may be 50 Percent. Incompetent leaders are those who are incapable of building teams and getting results through others, and there may be at least as many poor leaders as good leaders. Certainly the high profile cases at Adelphia, Charter Communications, Qwest, Worldcom, Tyco, Ahold, Boeing, Vivendi, Enron, the New York Stock Exchange and numerous companies in the financial industry provide ample evidence that “bad” values and dark side personality traits are leading causes of leader incompetence. Put another way, greed, vanity, narcissism, and a willingness to break the rules for personal gain have either stained the reputation or financially ruined many of these organizations. But both the Troubadour and Academic literature accurately point out that leader incompetence is not limited to those leaders under the microscope of the media. Most people need but only a single hand to count all of the effective leaders they ever worked for.

Both sets of literature show that bad leaders alienate workers and ultimately decrease customer loyalty and shareholder value. It may well be that leader incompetence is the single most challenging issue facing many organizations today— companies simply do not have the leadership talent needed to get them to the next level. Some of the reasons for this high rate of incompetence include a lack of clear expectations and accountability, and poorly designed hiring and development processes. These are described more fully in some of the next points.

4.  Integrated Leadership Talent Practices Improve Organizational Performance.   Both the Troubadour and Academic literature provide evidence that integrated hiring, development, performance management, and succession planning processes result in greater market share, higher revenues and operating margins, and higher employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention. This makes sense, in that the criteria used to hire new leaders should be the same as those used to develop, promote, and reward existing leaders. Usually companies use competency models as roadmaps for their leadership talent management processes. Good competency models define the behaviors and skills needed by leaders to be effective; they should describe how leaders are supposed to behave on a day-to-day basis. The leadership competencies found in most of these models can be broadly categorized into four major domains, which include technical/business, leadership, interpersonal, and self-management skills.

Example of a Mid-Level Leader Competency Model

The problem in many organizations is that many of these models are the creation of senior line and functional managers who vastly overestimate their competency modeling skills and who also fall victim to the “we are different” syndrome. For example, most HR developed competency models tend to be too “soft skill” oriented and somehow omit or downplay the technical, business, and operational skills needed to get results through others.  Moreover, the heads of recruiting, training and development, compensation and benefits, and succession planning may all use different competency models for their leadership talent management processes. Compounding this problem is the fact that many leaders often exhibit and are rewarded for very different behaviors than those described in their organizations’ competency models. Research shows that the more an organization aligns its leadership talent management practices are with a well-designed competency model, the lower the rate of leader incompetence. Although the proliferation of competency models is often well-intended (HR is only trying to help its internal customers), the end result is often succession planning confusion and lower organizational performance.

There are three other points about competency models that we think are worth noting. First, it is true that the technical, business, or operational skills needed by leaders in different business or functional units will differ. Organizations should accommodate these differences but should ensure the leadership, interpersonal, and self-management competencies are consistent across these entities. Second, it is also true that the skills and competencies needed by first-line leaders to build teams and get results through others are different than those needed by business unit leaders. (This is why it is not particularly useful to apply one leadership competency model to all leaders in larger organizations.) Organizations can take these differences into account by ensuring the business, leadership, interpersonal, and self-management competency categories remain consistent across leadership levels, but the behaviors and competencies found within these four categories vary by leadership level. Third, having well-developed competency models will not result in and of itself result in higher organizational performance—it is the leadership talent management practices associated with the model that result in higher organizational performance. For example, Coors has recently rolled out a company-wide competency model, but it will be the integrated leadership practices associated with this model that will ultimately result in higher organizational performance.

5.  Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses are Context Specific. We do know that both the Troubadour and Academic Traditions provide ample support that intelligence, personality, and values make a difference in leadership. As seen below, these characteristics make up some of the basic building blocks of skills. Although these individual differences remain fairly stable over time and across situations, leadership competencies do change as a result of education and experience. And competencies vary in terms of relative importance by position and context. Much of the literature of the Troubadour Tradition is written precisely around this notion—these case studies and books essentially prescribe the competencies needed by leaders in particular situations or business contexts. 

The Building Blocks of Skill Model

However, there are many situations where leaders’ strengths in one situation play key roles in managerial derailment. Some of the behaviors that get people promoted are the very same behaviors they need to either modify or give up when they move to new positions. For example, we know of a business unit manager who was the head of sales prior to her promotion. Her promotion was partly based on her reputation for solving difficult sales issues. As a business unit manager she focused exclusively on sales as the source and solution to all business problems, and this overplayed strength became a leading reason for her eventual dismissal.

We find the notion of playing exclusively to strengths, as promoted in First, Break All the Rules to be wrong-headed.  Sure, strengths are important. But peoples’ strengths and development needs are always dependent upon the context of their behavior. We find that it is much more useful to describe what behaviors leaders need to keep, start, and stop doing in their current or future position rather than talk about strengths and development needs. Regrettably, most hiring, development, performance management, and succession planning processes use the strengths and development needs framework.  But it should be relatively easy to shift from this to a keep, start, stop doing format.

6.  Clear, Measurable Goals Make a Difference. The flip side of competency modeling is goal setting. Competency models describe how leaders are supposed to behave on a day-to-day basis. They describe the means of leadership—those behaviors critical to building high performing teams. Goals, on the other hand, describe what the leader is supposed to get accomplished. They describe the ends of leadership—those results he or she is supposed to attain through others. In the Troubadour Tradition goal setting is often described as visioning or providing direction, and the Academic Tradition provides a wealth of support that leaders and employees work harder and achieve better results when pursuing clear, measurable goals than they do when pursuing ill-defined goals.

Although these findings about visioning and goal setting are practically universal, many leaders, particularly those at the top, have only vague expectations about the what and how of their positions. These poorly defined expectations are one of the primary causes of leader incompetence, and organizations can go a long way towards rectifying this problem by clearly defining outcomes and performance expectations for their leaders.

7.  Feedback Helps. Setting clear goals and performance expectations for leaders is an important step in reducing leader incompetence. However, research shows that goals combined with regular feedback inevitably results in higher performance than goals alone. Properly delivered, positive and constructive feedback can help leaders and employees stay focused and motivated to work on key deliverables. Yet virtually no one believes that they get all the feedback they need to be effective. Sometimes this feedback shortfall is due to a lack of skill, but the more likely culprit is a lack of supervisory will.  Some supervisors erroneously believe they need to be everybody’s friend and will not say anything to employees that would potentially disrupt their relationships. Others falsely believe that feedback takes a lot of time or that work itself provides its own feedback.  Feedback is a key accountability mechanism, and a lack of accountability is another leading cause of leader incompetence. If leaders do not get feedback or suffer consequences for behaving badly, then their bad behavior is likely to persist. The shenanigans at the banking and mutual fund industries were not one time events—many top leaders were aware of repeated sweetheart deals on IPOs and marketing timing trades yet provided little feedback (or consequence) about these questionable activities.

8.  Building Teams is a Crucial Leadership Skill. The ability to build teams is part of our definition of leadership. And when asked, people can quickly rattle off lists of attributes associated with effective leadership. Again, these lists look very similar across companies, cultures, books and articles. But ask the same people about they need to do to build high performing teams, and you often get nothing more than blank stares. Many people, leaders included, seem to lack the basic knowledge about how to take a group of people and turn them into a high performing team. This lack of knowledge is another contributor to the high rate of managerial incompetence.

Both sets of literature show that charismatic or transformational leaders seem especially adept at building teams. But those who are charismatically challenged often lack good frameworks or heuristics for team building. These leaders are often familiar with the component parts, but are not sure how the parts fit together, the proper sequencing of the components, or how to diagnose the root causes of dysfunctional teams. The Rocket Model provides a useful framework for helping people build high performing teams. To build teams, leaders need to: (a) determine the team’s purpose and set team goals; (b) attract, retain, and develop the talent needed to achieve these goals; (c) set norms for making decisions, getting work done, and getting along; (d) gain buy-in to the team’s purpose and goals; (e) resolve conflict and build morale; and (f) acquire needed resources and build and execute plans in order to achieve results. Most if not all team problems can be traced back to one of these six components.

Rocket Model

Characteristics of High Performing Teams

  • THIRD STAGE:  This stage of the rocket focuses on building team morale and improving team capabilities.  

Power - The team acquires the resources, autonomy, and decision-making latitude it needs to achieve results.

Morale - The team has identified those areas that will interfere with building cohesiveness and has developed effective countermeasures.

  • SECOND STAGE:  Setting the rules or norms for how team members will work together, and gaining the commitment of team members for the team’s mission are critical tasks in this part of the Team Model. To work effectively, teams must set rules for decision-making, communicating, and running meetings. They must also find ways to build commitment and buy-in to the team’s mission.

Norms The team sets agreed upon rules for decision-making, communication, meetings, work hand-offs, and debriefs.

Buy-In The team builds commitment by having a compelling future picture, credible leadership, and team members that are highly involved with goal setting and decision-making.

  • FIRST STAGE:  The first stage of a rocket will determine whether it what kind of payload the rocket can carry, or whether it will even get off the ground.   Similarly, this stage of the Team Model is critical to team success. Having a clear future picture, objectives, goals, and benchmarks and having the right talent to achieve the future picture is the first stage of team performance.    

Mission The team has a clear future picture, has set strategic objectives and benchmarks, and has developed methods to track mission progress.

Talent The team identifies the skills, experience, and abilities it will need to succeed.  It also builds or buys the talent it needs in order to achieve team goals.

One thing worth noting is that the skills and behaviors found in most competency models easily map onto the components of the Rocket Model. But what is disturbing is our observation that most leaders do not see the links between the behaviors described in competency models are those needed to build teams. Providing leaders with a roadmap for team building that incorporates an organization’s competency model would not be particularly difficult or expensive to do, and this would help to ease the managerial incompetence rate.

9. Developing Leadership Skills Requires All the Right Parts.We believe personal characteristics play a key role in effective leadership, and education and experience also play important roles. As stated earlier, leadership development is a multi-billion dollar industry. Most of these dollars do no harm, but given the high rate of leader incompetence, one could also argue that they appear to have little impact. Good leadership development programs should provide participants with knowledge and skills on what to do (i.e., the what and when of delegation) and how to do it (i.e., the steps for properly delegating a task).They should ultimately result in changed behavior on the part of the participants. But if changed behavior is used as the success criteria, then most leadership development programs come up dreadfully short.

There are several reasons for this. First, leadership development seems particularly prone to the latest management fads. Senior leaders are often looking for quick fixes, and falsely believe a two day program on MBOs, quality, or emotional intelligence; a high ropes course; or a trek through the Himalayas will change 40 years of habits. Second, many leadership development programs are not directly linked to the company’s business model, strategic priorities, or competency models. More often than not, participants will be asked to attend one to five day long classes that address many leadership concepts and skills, but the link between these skills and their day-to-day work can be totally lacking.

Finally, most leadership development programs are poorly designed. To change behavior, development programs need to address five key issues, which can be found in the table below. Organizations can evaluate the efficacy of their leadership development efforts by comparing program content and pedagogy to these five components. Programs incorporating all five components are much more likely to result in skill or behavior changes than those lacking certain components. For programs coming up short, adding the missing components often does not cost a lot of money.

The Five Critical Components of Leadership Development

Awareness: Good leadership development programs have well defined learning objectives and provide feedback on what skills participants currently have and what they will need to learn. Assessment tools, such as self-assessments, personality inventories or 360-degree feedback, can provide participants with information about skill gaps.

Drive: Most participants are avid fans of the radio station, WIFM (What’s in It For Me?).  In other words, how will participants personally benefit from the leadership development program? If they do not see how they will personally benefit from the program, they are not likely to change their behavior. Oftentimes the feedback from Awareness assessments can increase participants’ development drive.

Content: Many leadership development programs focus exclusively on this component.  Good leadership program content should involve the head, hands, and heart of participants. In other words, the content should get participants to think differently, actively practice doing different skills, and be emotionally engaging.  

Practice: In order to change behavior, participants will need to practice new skills. And these skills must not only be practiced in the program, they also need to be practiced back at work. Good leadership development programs have participants regularly practice new skills on the job.

Accountability: Companies should expect that participants will act differently as a result of a leadership development program. Supervisors need to ask participants about what they learned and do differently as a result of the program. They then need to hold participants accountable for their learnings. 

10.  Watch Out for Optimism Bias. The final entry to our top ten list for leaders to has to do with decision-making biases. Leaders get paid to make decisions, and both the Troubadour and Academic Traditions provide numerous examples where leaders and organizations pulled off the seemingly impossible—putting a man on the moon within a decade or the successful merger of two large companies (HP and Compaq, Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas). But these two bodies of literature are littered with just as many examples of leadership and organizational failure (the Bay of Pigs, the merger of Daimler and Chrysler, or post war Iraq).When making decisions, leaders are especially prone to overestimating the benefits of new projects and acquisitions and underestimating the true costs of time, personnel, and resources. This optimism bias is not limited to projects; it is also evident in many personnel decisions. All too often people with dysfunctional tendencies or lacking needed competencies are knowingly placed in positions of authority, with hiring managers erroneously hoping that these persons will somehow either change their behaviors or acquire the skills they need to be successful. Recent articles by Lovallo and Kahneman, Matta and Ashkenas, and Moss Kanter in Harvard Business Review all provide examples and/or solutions for dealing with this optimism bias.

Another source of optimism bias is narcissism. Leaders, particularly those near the top of organizations, tend to have narcissistic tendencies. (If you do not believe this, then we suggest you watch the Tyco birthday videotape.) On the positive side, nothing ever got launched without a healthy dose of narcissism. On the negative side, the tendency to pump up the benefits and discount the costs or challenges may be the root cause of many failed mergers or organizational change initiatives. Kramer’s recent article in Harvard Business Review provides additional information about the consequences of narcissism and how to leaders can successfully cope with their narcissistic tendencies.  But we also believe that many of these problems can be avoided if organizations specifically assess for narcissistic tendencies and work out plans for dealing with these tendencies before people are put into significant positions of power.

Summary. As stated earlier, our top ten list does not cover any new ground.  Many of these findings have been known for some time, but for a variety of reasons organizations seem hesitant to adopt these leadership practices. This is unfortunate, as leaders represent a strategic asset in most organizations, and companies spend considerable sums investing in this asset. Whether the failure to adopt these practices is due to ignorance, arrogance, or turf building is somewhat irrelevant. What companies need to realize is that they would get a much better return on their human capital investments if they spent the same amount of money on initiatives and programs that were aligned with these practices.

Gordy Curphy, Ph.D.
President, Curphy Consulting Corporation
1978 Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy
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