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Syd Weighs In

A fatal flaw when choosing the right leader

About the author

Sydney is a professor of strategy and leadership, and Dean for Executive Education,  at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the author of 16 books, including Why Smart Executives Fail. Follow him on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

I, like many people, have been thinking a lot about US President Barack Obama lately. Did we pick the right man? Do we ever pick the right man, or woman? And how can we know ahead of time whether we’ve got the right person to be our leader?

The puzzle is one that is faced not just in presidential politics, but by all companies — profit and non-profit alike — as well as volunteer organisations, NGO’s, hospitals, schools and governments. The person at the top can make all the difference in the world, for better or for worse.

Politicians and other leaders from virtually every corner of the globe inevitably disappoint. But the much bigger concern is the mindset of voters, board members, and nominating committees when selecting our leaders — and the uncomfortable realisation that we’re not very good at it.

I’m not even talking about the myriad of mistakes we make in selecting talent when we hire, from preferring people who look and act like us to believing that we can size someone up from an interview (the data on this last point, by the way, shows we are astoundingly bad at that). The single biggest problem — the fatal flaw in choosing presidents, school board leaders, or football coaches — is that we believe we can predict the future rather than looking for a leader who can quickly adapt to whatever the unpredictable future holds.

Think about what stands as best practice for choosing leaders. You assess the challenges and opportunities your organisation or team faces, and then look for the one person who has the best array of skills to address those challenges and opportunities. And that’s considered state of the art.

But what if we’re not that good at figuring out the most critical challenges and opportunities we want our leader to solve? And even more, what if the issues of the day are eclipsed by new events? With the pace of change as intense as it is across industries and countries, how can we even believe we are able to identify the precise bundle of experiences, capabilities and personality needed to take on what tomorrow brings?

Yet we act as if that is exactly what we are able to do. 

In long election cycles like in the United States, by the time a new president is sworn in, the entire mandate may have changed. Was President Obama elected because of his massive experience in addressing global financial breakdown? Of course not, but that dominated the first year of his administration, which coincided with the global financial crisis. 

How about President George W Bush? He had been in office for less than eight months when September 11 happened. Did voters anticipate that type of challenge to the country when voting for him? 

Certainly not. In fact, how could we? Even the most seasoned executive is vulnerable to this same fatal flaw. Reginald Jones was ready to retire as CEO of General Electric in 1981, when he decided to turn the reins over to Jack Welch. One of the things he said at the time was that after a period of technological change the economy, and hence, GE, was about to enter an era of stability and maturity. He didn’t have a sense of the coming onslaught from the Microsofts, Intels and Ciscos of the world, yet he was the CEO of one of the most powerful and resource-rich companies on the globe. He had access to the best advisors and experts that money could buy. And he got it wrong — utterly wrong.

If we can’t predict the future, then how can we figure out who’s got the right stuff to lead us into that future?

First, there is a body of knowledge and experience that is relevant for any top job. It’s like an entry ticket to the game; you can’t be considered if you haven’t at least paid some dues. Second, you need a demonstrated track record of accomplishment. Playing is not enough; you have to have some wins under your belt too.

Many organisations stop there, but you really have to go the third, final, step to increase the odds of identifying a great leader. You need to ensure that your would-be leader has the agility to adapt to new and unexpected circumstances. In the face of change, executives who stick to the same playbook that got them to the top is almost always a failing formula. The inability of senior executives to adapt and adjust is the real reason companies such as Blockbuster and Kodak went out of business — and the reason companies like Google and Amazon keep beating competitors to the punch, time and time again.

The need for agile leadership is a problem for executives in all organisations. And the more senior the position the more complex, the more ambiguous, the more important the challenges and the decisions a leader is faced with. It’s precisely for these types of challenges that there is a huge premium on adaptability.

When faced with a failed strategy, we want our leaders to come up with something very different. We want them to adapt, demonstrate flexibility and show they have the agility to be a great leader. And we want them to do it in real-time, all the time.

Which brings us back to President Obama. The big question is: has he shown himself to be an agile leader amid multiple crises such as Syria, superstorm Sandy and battles with Congress? The agility question is one that voters should have asked before 2008.

Great leaders must be adaptable. Consider the military’s special forces, those highly trained personnel assigned to the most dangerous and unconventional missions. These elite units, which date back to Roman times, select and train warriors for strength, maturity, motivation, and intelligence. Candidates who make it through to the end are incredibly capable, yet there is one characteristic that is make-or-break in the final analysis: the ability to adapt and adjust and think fresh, in real-time.

And that is the one capability all leaders must have.

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What if we’re not that good at figuring out the most critical challenges and opportunities we want our leader to solve?