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Why We Should Change How We Choose Leaders

Leadership expert John Knights explains how the way we choose leaders needs to change in today's more transparent, information-driven society, and recommends new attitudes to increase the benefit not only to organizations but society as a whole.

Who are the people who generally get to the top? Although there are many great exceptions to the rule – thankfully- those who most often reach the top of organizations are not good leaders in my experience. That is because we choose people who are good at ‘getting to the top’ using a variety of strategies depending on their personalities.

This may be because they are assertive (a bully?) have gravitas (arrogant?) are organizationally aware (manipulative?) creative (opinionated?) or decisive (don’t listen to others?). But the overriding driver that gets these people to the top is their desire for personal success. Their egos are driven by power, prestige, recognition or reward, even though they are remunerated by the organization to act in its best interests.

The world has changed fundamentally in the last twenty years, primarily because of the quantum leap in communications and the availability of information via the internet and mobile devices. This has affected most other things in our lives including the speed of change of society and the birth of a new kind of democracy and social order. Future generations will not put up with today's typical leaders.

One of the reasons why we are going through the recent ethical turmoil in organizations and government is because today it is much more difficult to keep things hidden long term, and that is fundamentally because of the rapid availability of unprecedented amounts of information. Today there are just too many ways to leak from the closed shop, the old-boys’ network and more obscure clubs. So for the first time for centuries at least, poor ethics are getting really exposed.

Leaders have two options going forward: Find new clever ways to hide damaging secret information or be transparent. The second option is far easier but only if leaders can move beyond their ego and their focus on personal gain.

Yet organizations are still identifying talent in the same way, the major consultants are still giving the same advice, and the business schools are still training MBA students the same old ways. For the long term benefit of society we have to do something proactive about making sure we choose leaders that can and do think beyond their ego. In  Leadership Assessment for Talent Development, we call that ‘ Transpersonal Leadership’.

Our brains have a stone-age default that encourages us to follow strong, powerful, tough, leaders that perform. That often means they are selfish and ego-driven. Yet because of our herd instinct we follow them and put up with poor behaviours and values and don’t complain until a major event disposes them – then we all complain how bad they were! Who is guilty?

The fundamental change we need is to redefine the characteristics we desire of our future leaders and then search for individuals and develop those capabilities. While future leaders still need to perform at a high level, they will only make the best use of the human capital available (the real assets of the business) if they have real empathy, show humility, demonstrate a desire to develop others and be of service to all stakeholders. They also need to be transparent, caring, engaging and empowering. While these attributes were always preferred though rare leadership characteristics, they are now increasingly a must. And our research suggests women tend to be better at these than men.

We need to change how we select and then develop our leaders of the future. We need to insist on the right behaviours and actual demonstration of the right values before individuals are even considered for promotion and responsibility. Rather than a shortage of talent, this would create a much broader base for developing future leaders, eliminate unsuitable candidates and finish up with leaders who would be more competent for our time - as well as being content with a reasonable remuneration. The result would be a much more diverse range of leaders.

There are many people out there who could have been (and still could be) great leaders but they were not willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top within the current ‘best practice.’ We cannot afford to lose these silent stars.

As explained in Leadership Assessment for Talent Development, there are proven ways to select, assess and develop leaders so the right leaders blossom and achieve their potential. Now we just need organizations to grasp the nettle.

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