Seeking competent leaders

Jan 20 2009 by Myra White Print This Article

In 2008 we discovered that many of the business leaders in whom we had placed our faith, our trust and even our money, were incompetent or (in some cases) out-and-out charlatans. In reflecting on this turn of events, it is impossible not to ask how this happened. How could we have picked leaders who made such bad decisions or even engaged in blatant fraud?

The answer lies, in part, with the fact that we often are more concerned with social skills, likeability and charisma in choosing our leaders than we are with their ability to be effective leaders.

Traditionally our ideas about what makes a great leader were based on a military model. A great leader was a man who took command, acted with courage, and did what was necessary for the success of his organization or country. Often he led using fear rather than persuasion.

In recent years this model has been replaced with softer ideas of what a leader should be like. We have the servant leader who, as the name suggests, serves the people whom he or she leads rather than controlling them. We have the emotionally intelligent leader who has social charm, empathy, self-awareness and self-control. We have the transformational leader who provides people with a vision of a better world and motivates them to transcend their self-interest. We have the charismatic leader who emotionally energizes followers with an inspiring vision of the future and convinces them that he or she is the heroic figure who can make this vision real.

None of these newer softer ideas of what a leader should be stress whether a leader is competent. Instead they focus on leaders being socially adept, charismatic and likeable. George Bush is an example of someone who has always used likeability to establish his leadership credentials with the general public. On a talk radio show following his reelection in 2004, people called in to say why they voted for him. Comments centered on the fact that he was a good guy with whom you could share a beer. One caller even went so far as to state, "I voted for George Bush because I liked his father."

The problem with this emphasis on likability and strong social skills in picking our leaders is that these qualities don't ensure that we are choosing a leader who will be able to deliver results. Research has not found that leaders who are socially adept or liked and admired are more effective.

Bernard Madoff is a perfect example of how likeability and social skills have little to do with competence. He built his giant financial house of cards by using his charm and affability to create a powerful social network. The New York Times has reported that his social and professional lives were "practically inseparable." He cut deals at country clubs, golf courses, locker rooms, charity events and restaurants.

Eventually Madoff even built up a loyal cadre of friends who approached their friends and encouraged them to invest with him. While some more astute investment professionals pointed out that Madoff's numbers didn't add up, his social circle never thought to question his competence. They continued to believe in him and provide him with clients.

In the corporate, political and professional worlds social skills, likeability and charisma all influence who is chosen to lead. CEO's who embody these qualities find it easy to rotate between companies regardless whether they have the skills and past experience needed to be effective in a particular company. The fact that board members socially know and like them gives them an edge which can result in questions about their ability to deliver being suspended.

As a result, candidates for top positions are often subjected to less scrutiny than people being considered for lower level positions in organizations. Ken Lay, who led Enron during its death spiral, was recruited to head AT&T several years before Enron imploded. Luckily for AT&T, Lay declined the offer.

This is not to say that likeability and charisma are bad qualities. They have value in energizing and motivating followers to achieve a leader's goals. The point is that they should not be the major yardstick that we use in selecting a person for positions of responsibility that can impact the lives of many people and even the economic well-being and stability of countries.

In the future it is imperative that we carefully evaluate potential leaders to make sure that they can perform at the levels needed to be successful in a particular position. This includes having the cognitive capacity to process, understand, and use complex information from around the world in making important decisions.

As the recent financial crisis has illustrated, countries and businesses are globally intertwined. We can no longer afford leaders who lack the competence to be effective in this dynamic environment. Sports teams pick people based on their competence and ability, not their social skills and charisma. Why shouldn't businesses and organizations follow suit?

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.