Sunday, September 14, 2008

What to look for in a leader

With the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, my co-workers and I have been spending a lot of time talking politics. We're of different political parties, so things can get pretty interesting.

Debates aside, we're all assessment professionals, so we keep coming to the same conclusion: it's difficult to figure out who would be the better president without an accurate job analysis. Without knowing what it takes to be good at a job, it's almost impossible to predict who would best fill it.

This topic isn't a new one for me; I wrote previously about whether "experience matters" in a leader, and how you would actually go about hiring one. But in a way that's putting the cart before the horse. Before we look at actual ways of finding a leader, let's look at what it takes to be one.

Of course many, many people have written about leadership and the KSAs or competencies it takes to be good at it, including respected voices in the assessment world. But new data is always welcome, which is why I was pleased to see a recent analysis by Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the most thoughtful authors about the subject today.

In her recent article she outlines 10 attributes that she believes distinguishes "truly great Presidents." Using Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as exemplars (identifying and agreeing on high performers is a particular challenge in this case), she listed the following. Think about how these relate to leadership in your organization:

1. The courage to stay strong--to survive in the face of adversity and motivate oneself even when frustrated.

2. Self-confidence--the ability to surround oneself with experts, regardless of whether they agree with you or not.

3. An ability to learn from errors--to acknowledge and grow from mistakes rather than continue down a road of failure.

4. A willingness to change--not just by getting elected (or hired) but by going against previous tendences and preferences when situations require it.

5. Emotional intelligence--the ability to encourage others, take blame, and help others play to their strengths.

6. Self-control--either not letting events upset you, or pausing before responding when they do.

7. A popular touch--an awareness of where the citizens (employees) are and what they are (and aren't) ready for.

8. A moral compass--doing what's right, not just what's politically expedient or popular.

9. A capacity to relax--this includes the ability to diffuse your own emotions as well as relax those around you through tools like humor.

10. A gift for inspiring others--the ability to communicate broad goals shaped by history and context, shift opinions, and motivate.

So given these qualities, here are some things to think about:

- Are these attributes generalizable to leaders in your organization?
- Are these the types of things you're looking for when recruiting/hiring leaders?
- If so, are you assessing them in the right way?
- If you're a leader, do you embody these qualities?


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Chris Young said...

Bryan - Nice job analysis on such an important position.

I shared your post with my readers in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog recommendations of the week as found here: