wrong way to leadership

Leadership is hard. It’s at the center of the crossroads of business and people, making it difficult for so many reasons and on so many levels. I have huge respect and admiration for those who lead well and I have spent large portions of my career helping people get even better at it.

I hope it’s not a surprise, I hope I’m not revealing a deep industry secret, but many (most?) of the leaders in your company simply aren’t very good at it. Worse, many of them either don’t realize how bad they are or don’t know how to get better.

How does this happen? Promotions are supposed to be based on merit where the people with skill and drive rise to the top.

If only…

Choosing Leaders

One of the biggest barriers to good leadership is simply how organizations choose their leaders. See if this sounds familiar:

  1. Those who are selected for promotion are the hardest workers with the best technical skills. Obviously, those are the ones we want to promote. Unfortunately, becoming a supervisor is the only path of promotion, so those who want to further their career must go into leadership.
  2. Promotion into leadership comes with a pay raise, additional responsibility, and is the obvious next career step. Few turn this down, even if they have little desire or ability to lead.
  3. It is (incorrectly) assumed that the “soft” leadership skills aren’t as important as technical skills so the new leaders are given very little training. Considering the multiplied impact a leader has on the organization through all of the people they lead, one would think continually developing and refining people skills would be considered company priority #1 for any leader. Oddly, it isn’t.

Alright, so some of the people who get promoted into leadership don’t really want it, aren’t good at it, and don’t receive support from the company to get better. “So what if a few get promoted who aren’t good at it?” you ask. “That’s just natural selection at work, right? Some are already good at it and some are driven to learn and improve on their own. The good ones get promoted and the poor ones will fall by the wayside.” A nice thought but experience suggests otherwise.

Simply put, many poor leaders get promoted. It shouldn’t be that way, but the same silly system that promoted them into leadership the first time also lifts them up higher. It happens. They get promoted again and again because their team succeeds despite their poor leadership, because there is an opening and they are the only ones barely qualified to fill it, or because they simply stick around long enough and get promoted because of their tenure.

Human Phenomena?

At this point, a few human phenomena start to kick in. You’ve seen them in action, even if you didn’t know or remember their names.

  1. The Peter Principle. This says that when people are selected for a position based on performance in the current role vs skills and abilities needed for the new role it results in people getting promoted to their level of incompetence. In other words, people get promoted until they are in a role they are unsuited for and do not have the skills or abilities to succeed in. Notice, this generally starts with the first promotion into a leadership role.
  1. Dunning-Krueger Effect. In short, this is when the unskilled and incompetent grossly overestimate their own skill and believe they have above average ability (you’ve worked for this person, haven’t you?). The flip side of this is that the truly skilled tend to underestimate their own abilities. Or as, Bertrand Russell put it: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Couple those together and you have a leader with a lack of ability who doesn’t know they have a lack of ability. They think they do a pretty good job (after all, they keep getting promoted). AND, because they overestimate their abilities, they likely come off as confident and secure in their leadership skills, making them appear more far competent than they are and possibly leading to more promotions. Is there a possible problem here? [hint: yes]


So what can we do? The biggest and first solution is to simply recognize that leadership is an important and a distinctly separate skillset. Organizations expect people to spend years learning their technical skills through college, trade schools, or on-the-job experience and then expect people to be good at the unfamiliar skill set of leadership on day one. It just doesn’t happen that way.

Viewing leadership as a separate skill set, we’d do things a bit differently. We’d probably:

  1. Create technical career paths and opportunities that don’t rely on leadership roles.
  2. Identify and promote people into leadership based on their aptitude and interest in leadership. Promote for the requirements of the next job, not mastery of the current one. Many won’t be the same people who would have been promoted in the past.
  3. Provide ongoing leadership development that includes feedback from their own manager, peers, subordinates, customers, and other leaders in the organization familiar with their style. Help them understand what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. Shine the lights brightly on their blindspots. And then help them improve.
  4. Link leadership performance to job performance. One would assume a leader’s job is to be a good leader. Seems obvious, but the actual ability to deal with, develop, and get the best out of people are often evaluated as an afterthought or add on to “job” performance.

Are there difficulties and problems with this? Yes. But not as many difficulties or problems created by leaders who can’t lead (and think they can).

What are your thoughts?

[Photo Credit: colink via Compfight cc]

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