If It Talks Like a Duck: How Confusing Leadership Presence with Leadership Effectiveness Leads to Bad Hiring Decisions
Taylor is one of those confident, outgoing guys who stands out in a crowd. He looks like a leader, talks like a leader, and collects fans the way charismatic types do. He has built an impressive career. When I asked him what has been key to his success, he spoke about the importance of never staying too long in any one job or organization and being aggressive and aspirational in pursuing the next opportunity. The funny thing about Taylor is, if you stop and objectively evaluate his success beyond the positions he’s held, he comes up short. While he’s been successful, the projects he’s managed, the teams he’s built, the businesses he’s led have not been particularly remarkable or successful. In fact, he is someone who consistently disappoints. In his case, moving from one company and opportunity to another helped him evade questions about his real effectiveness. Because Taylor looks like a leader and talks like a leader, people have - erroneously - assumed he is a leader. This is a common, and potentially disastrous, human decision-making error: confusing leadership presence with leadership effectiveness.
It is this very human error that tends to get us, as citizens, into trouble in the political realm. We are naturally attracted to those candidates who possess leader-like qualities and we get behind them. It isn’t until after the fact we discover that, sometimes, looking like a leader and sounding like a leader does not translate into an ability to lead.
It is this same human error that gets CEOs and boards into trouble when they make judgments and decisions about personnel. When we use ‘executive presence’ as a proxy for effectiveness, we run the risk of hiring or promoting someone who proves unable to translate their leadership presence into results.
Strategies to Avoid Getting Duped by Leaders Who are ‘Big Hat, No Cattle’
There are things you can do to avoid hiring people who possess more leadership presence, confidence and ambition than they do real ability.
Be aware of the natural tendency to be attracted to and distracted by leadership presence. Knowledge is power. If you know we tend to correlate leadership emergence with effectiveness you can guard against it. When you hear yourself thinking or saying ‘she really stands out as a leader,’ follow up with ‘I wonder how effective she really is.’
Seek out and supplement intuition with hard data. Sometimes it is easier to make judgments and get to the heart of someone’s effectiveness when there isn’t so much veneer. When there is a lot of veneer, this is the time to be more diligent in supporting your gut reaction with facts. Expand the reference pool and dig deeper. I recently did a 360- feedback process for someone who got glowing reviews from everyone I spoke with. It wasn’t until I dug in and asked about results that I heard things like "yeah, I really like her and would work with her again in a second, but to be honest, while she did okay she really wasn’t as successful as we were expecting". Things to watch out for include: a track record of promotions generated by moving between rather than within an organization and frequent job changes before results can be adequately assessed.
Psychometrics can be your friend. In my leadership practice I use both in-depth interviews as well as psychometrics (you know, those pesky online leadership assessments) to understand leadership effectiveness. They can provide important supplemental information about leadership style and personality variables that are missed by interviewers. Leader-like people perform exceptionally well in interviews. Good psychometric tools can help to tease out leadership presence from leadership effectiveness so you don’t get duped.
Know when to cut your losses
We all make mistakes, sometimes in spite of our diligence. It can be hard to face up to bad decisions - it is embarrassing to admit you have mis-judged someone. Discovering your new CEO isn’t very effective in leading the people or the business is a hard pill to swallow. But leadership effectiveness requires the building of managerial ‘muscle’ and ‘scar tissue’ over time and experience. Can you afford to try and transform this leader’s emergence into effectiveness at this stage in their career? If the answer is ‘no’, best to move on. If the answer is ‘yes’, you will need to figure out how you are going to do that. Step one is convincing that leader she is not as effective as she believes herself to be. It isn’t impossible, but it is probably not going to be very easy. After all, look at her track record.
What to Do if This is You
What if you are the person who possesses tremendous leadership presence but hasn’t been able to translate it into real and sustained leadership success? Sometimes our self-confidence and belief that we ought to be in charge can get in the way of the vulnerability that is required to actually learn how to be effective. The good news is, you are starting from a position of strength - people already see you as a leader. Here are some strategies to get you on your way.
Admit you may not be as great as you think you are. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step. My favourite people to work with are those who see themselves as always coming up short and in constant need of development to improve as leaders. Not surprisingly, these are usually the people who are most effective and need my help the least. When you say you want to improve, do you really mean that or is it a superficial acknowledgement? Where is the evidence to back up your commitment to change? Are you prepared to do the work?
Seek a deeper level of self-awareness. Not all of us are blessed with penetrating insight into who we are and what makes us tick. Strategies for supplementing your own insight include 360-reviews and those pesky psychometrics. These tools are designed to tell you, in very objective terms, about you.
Get professional help. I know that you don’t just want to be a leader, you want to be a good leader. If being an effective leader were so easy, you would have figured it out by now. It isn’t easy. So admit you need help transforming yourself into the leader you want to be and seek out the help and support of someone who can really help you make that happen. This isn’t a 30-day program. This is a lifelong pursuit.
This article was inspired by a webinar entitled The Impact of Narcissism on Leadership courtesy of Hogan Assessments (www.hoganassessments.com), the Alberta provincial election, and at least one ‘big hat, no cattle’ leader I’ve bumped into recently.