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Face The Challenge - Sample Section, Chapter 21

Chapter Twenty-One -  Who Has "What it Takes?"

"Who Has What It Takes" aims at assisting senior Leaders in selecting the right junior Leaders with good effective leadership selection characteristics who will make them more successful, and overcoming the personal bias or unconstructive leadership selection attitudes that often interfere with choosing effective candidates who have the right leadership characteristics. Also included is an insightful review of the characteristics that good Leaders demonstrate in the early stages of their development.


21.1 Identifying Who Has What It Takes.  Hiring new recruits, promoting Subordinates, or choosing a successor presents Leaders with their most auspicious opportunities to impact organizational results.  Not surprisingly, a Leader's depth of character and leadership talent will ultimately determine the quality of the Subordinates he or she selects.  As Leaders habitually choose individuals who reflect their own image because they feel comfortable with this personality profile and usually believe that they themselves are a sterling role model.  Thus this nearly inescapable bias causes Leaders to hire and promote individuals who are in essence clones of themselves, or who at least outwardly profess to have the same general values and attitude.  In short, rolled-shirt-sleeve types usually favor other rolled-shirt-sleeve types, while desk jockeys usually prefer and promote other desk jockeys.  And this natural predisposition or prejudice—favorable or unfavorable depending upon one's point of view or leadership talents—often proves difficult if not impossible for the greater majority of Leaders to overcome.  Some Leaders also have a strong need to select Subordinates who are willing to implement their directives without debating or challenging them outright due to their own inability to resolve conflict or to think outside the box.  However, such candidates typically possess less distinguished leadership traits than those who think for themselves, seek greater latitude to implement their own ideas, or who persistently search for ways to make a meaningful contribution to the big picture.  Additionally, individuals who function well or are satisfied with doing their Leader's bidding may ultimately prove unsuitable for exercising independent command no matter how long they have been a strong right arm or successfully played second fiddle.  But when things are rolling along in a relatively satisfactory manner, the average senior Leader is usually content with maintaining the status quo; for there is no immediate imperative necessitating that changes be made.  And though impending calamities normally first appear as only tiny indistinguishable signs or flickering cautionary lights on some distant horizon (e.g., a small tropical depression off the West coast of Africa)—requiring someone of acute vision or exceptional mental capacity to distinguish them—most Leaders typically have difficulty selecting or promoting individuals of equal or greater leadership or intellectual depth than themselves.  As such individuals often cause their immediate supervisor to feel inadequate or envious, or otherwise undermine his or her own self-confidence.  Conversely, aggressive futuristic Leaders fully recognize that while "talent is that which is in a man's [woman's] power; genius is that in whose power a man [woman] is" (James Russell Lowell, American Author, 1819-1891), and assiduously seek such Subordinate gemstones whether ideally cut or in their rough natural state.  For "effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes" (Drucker); and superior results are rarely achieved by an amalgamation of average minds, no matter how congenial they might be.


(A) Consequently, superior Leaders select individuals who have the strongest leadership traits and administrative skill set; considering such factors to be significantly more important than their genteel interactive traits or the ability to reconfigure themselves into the protracted, B-school leadership image that he or she might have unwittingly formulated.  For stacking the junior supervisory ranks with smiling, numb-brain sycophants is the equivalent of a Leader placing a magnet near the organization's compass so that the arrow will point in the direction that he or she wants to go; as opposed to selecting Subordinates whose counsel or productive output would be of substantially greater merit.
(B) However, Subordinates who regularly prove to be the best Leaders may not necessarily win many popularity contests among their peers or superiors or be particularly easy to get along with.  For example, General MacArthur illustrated this concept well when explaining his choice of General George C. Kenny (who had been a frequent irritation when MacArthur served as Chief-of-Staff) as his air commander in the South Pacific during WWII: "in peace time [when things are going well] you want an officer [a steady professional] and a gentleman [someone who is congenial], at war [during a crisis] you want a rebel [someone who can think for him or herself and exercise independent judgment] and a son-of-a-bitch [a tough decision maker who is willing to call the shots]."  General Kenny allegedly made no objection to the inference that he was a rebel.  (Perret, SND).


(C) Commonly, the most difficult problem for middle or senior Leaders to overcome when promoting Subordinates or choosing a successor in larger organizations is identifying those individuals who demonstrate noticeably greater leadership ability than their peers at the earlier stages of their development.  For though there are normally a large number of bright and energetic individuals to select from initially, only a relatively small percentage of these will have the depth of character, technical ability, creativity, and fortitude to develop the leadership skills ultimately needed to succeed at progressively higher levels of responsibility.  And given the fact that within any organization there are usually only a mere handful of individuals who provide the creative input, determine the strategic outcome, or otherwise impel it to move forward; it is absolutely imperative that those who are groomed to perpetuate this elite nuclear core have enough fissionable mental material to make it all happen (Jay).  As most importantly, upper-echelon Leaders who would attempt to scale the highest or even more modest peaks all need their Tenzing Norgays (Nepalese Sherpa who assisted Sir Edmund Percival Hillary in conquering Mt. Everest on May 29, 1953, 1914-1986); regardless of the scope of their personal knowledge, special talents, or motivational ability.


(D) Senior leadership aspirees must be able to outperform their peers at each successive level of responsibility to at least position themselves to be eligible for further advancement.  However, beyond the second or third supervisory levels, the overall importance of superior technical skills begins to diminish with an increasingly greater proportion of a rising Leader's success being dependent upon his or her ability to motivate his or her Subordinates to achieve superior performance levels.  Additionally, the skill set required to ascend to the uppermost echelons can be heavily tilted toward favorably impressing one's superiors on a social or superficial basis rather than being dependent upon the technical competence or leadership skills required of a future president.  Thus in highly politicized organizations it may be literally impossible for individuals with the strongest leadership traits to advance beyond the second or third supervisory echelons, simply because those who possess the motivational skills and drive to get things done at the early stages of their career development commonly lack comparably strong political or superficial interaction skills, and often develop a reputation for stepping on too many toes.  For resolute leadership demands that individuals have a desire to determine what is to be done and to do it; whereas being politically astute requires that they more readily accept the will of their superiors and do as they are told with a minimum of controversy.  And rare indeed is an individual who due to his or her intensity level will have the opportunity to achieve significant notoriety for his or her proficiency, competence, or operational achievements; while at the same time remaining politically popular with the greater majority of his or her peers or superiors.  But more astutely, senior Leaders should select promotable candidates based upon their willingness to exercise their own prerogative combined with the necessary discipline to get things done within the system—though possibly bursting a rivet or two—rather than selecting those who have successfully avoided controversy or who are more likely to be convivial dinner companions.


(E) As maximizing the bottom line requires that only individuals with the strongest leadership attributes, mental wherewithal, and achievement records be promoted; without regard to where they went to college, who their father was, who they know, where they come from, how good a round of golf they play, how adroit their political skills, how many sports trivia questions they can answer, or some similarly nebulous pedigree.  And axiomatically, the most qualified individual should be promoted even if the subsequent vacancy created by his or her promotion will prove difficult to fill (though often only an excuse to kill a highly qualified but controversial individual's candidacy).  For if the most operationally qualified candidate is passed over, the Leader will predictably have to fill that vacancy relatively soon anyway without the continued services of the Subordinate who was deemed "too valuable" in his or her present position to be promoted.


(F) In addition, Subordinates with diverse backgrounds add greater strength to the decision making matrix and accelerate the development of their peers; consequently, Leaders should endeavor to create a heterogeneous, not homogeneous, group of Subordinates.  For work groups consisting of individuals with highly similar backgrounds, beliefs, or experiences tend to be more narrow in both their general outlook and approach to problems than those who have collectively faced a wider range of challenges.  Thus a Leader is grievously injudicious to insist that his or her Subordinate conform their thoughts or behavior to his or her expectations beyond that reasonably required to maintain operational discipline or to achieve the organization's objectives.


(G) When faced with a downsizing challenge, Leaders must be especially careful choosing which Subordinates to retain so as to prevent cutting lean as well as fat.  For if those who remain are selected based primarily upon their personality or subservience to the Leader's will, the new "lean, mean, fighting machine" will prove to have even less operational firepower than its more corpulent predecessor.  Turnaround Leaders can also expect the ingratiatory "smoke blowing" to be especially thick and heavy as everyone begins falling over backwards trying to curry his or her favor.  However, during a turnaround situation—as well as in all other supervisory circumstances—a strict cash-and-carry, “money [ability] talks, BS [politics] walks" selection policy repeatedly produces the most proficient results.  But in any event, Leaders "should never shortsightedly sacrifice people to save a few short-run dollars" (Axelrod, POL p148) and wind up with such an emaciated organization structure once the downsizing debris cloud has cleared that it cannot effectively handle additional "sales weight" after it moves beyond the red-ink crisis.


(H) Significantly more aggressive or imaginative individuals can be expected to experience mounting frustration over any ineptness or sluggishness demonstrated by either their peers or superiors.  As a result, it is not unusual for Leaders of considerable merit to have been fired from one or more positions simply because they worked for supervisors who proved incapable of maximizing their talents or who failed to build a sound working relationship.  Consequently, Leaders whose résumés are brimming with accomplishments, and who appear to have what it takes, and yet have not apparently reached their full hierarchical potential are more often unemployed because of an incompetent or envious supervisor than because of their own interactive deficiencies or lack of ability.  And while the selection of such candidates may seem somewhat iffy on the surface, the benefit to aggravation ratio can often be so stupendous as to make the potential increase in supervisory effort or gastrointestinal distress well worthwhile.  Alternatively, the fantasy of hiring or promoting individuals who have the ability to solve all the Leader's problems without creating some additional controversy is about as far-fetched as imagining a teenager who will not at some point test the crush depth of his or her parents' patience.


(I) Ultimately, the final selection or promotion decision should not be the product of a committee or a popularity contest of the candidate's peers, as such results will invariably be corrupted by the self-interests of those involved.  It is the Leader who must make the final decision based upon his or her own analysis, judgment and experience after considering the attributes of each candidate, the advice of those participating in the selection process, and the perceived needs of the organization.  As "there are no [personality or character] traits that guarantee successful leadership in all situations….What produces good results…is the combination of a particular context and an individual with the appropriate qualities to lead in that context" (Gardner, OL p38); and successfully making such matches is a major reason why senior Leaders get paid the big bucks.

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© Copyright 2006 by H. Garrett Hayward from Face the Challenge: The Leader's Success Handbook