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Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?

By Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran

(Jossey-Bass, 279 pages, $33.95)

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Leadership scholarship is all over the map on defining the prerequisites for being a top executive. But even if you know which attributes to seek, how can you be sure the person you are scouting has the strengths you are seeking (without the flaws you fear)?

Because of this dual difficulty – what to search for, and how to gauge if the characteristics are there – too many leadership selection processes backfire.

Indeed, succession planning experts Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran say organizations today are lousy at picking leaders. "The truth is that we don't do a competent job of selecting the men and women who have what it takes to lead," they write in Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?

They argue that seven criteria pop up over and over again as the most vital for effective leadership – the DNA, or essential building blocks, of overall success. The trick is how to spot the seven signs:


Leadership potential starts with this attribute, because no leader can be effective without integrity. The authors note that leaders can be downright dangerous if they lack integrity, as we saw, for example, with Enron's meltdown last decade.

This is a difficult characteristic to assess, so in job interviews the consultants outline several hypothetical situations drawn from business case studies to see whether the people being interviewed can recognize subtle ethical issues buried within. "Does she recognize hidden issues involving trust, consistency, or transparency? Does she perceive how circumstances might unfairly affect others? Can she draw a connection between integrity issues and overall organizational performance?" they write.

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Just as it's impossible to be an effective leader without integrity, it's impossible to lead without knowing what makes people tick. Leaders need to be in touch with the emotions and needs of their followers, handling social relations adeptly. A 360-degree review, with questions probing these abilities, can help assess a candidate. Pay particular attention to responses about the person's listening skills. As well, the authors use crisis simulations, to see how empathetic the person is to others under pressure; or a discussion of a case study in which empathy plays a role.

Emotional intelligence

Leaders need to understand their blind spots and weaknesses, and control themselves under the scrutiny that comes with their position. This is particularly important when people move into new positions outside their comfort zones. When recruiting, probe candidates about their past experiences, looking for what they have learned – and how honest they are in revealing a less-than-sterling performance. Also, look for individuals who are passionately committed to career development, taking charge of their own careers.


Leaders imagine a better future, offering direction to followers. In assessing candidates, look for innovative thinking, keeping in mind that it often comes from a blend of diverse experiences. Also, pay particular attention in interviews to the candidate's ability to create win-win situations even when a situation seems hopeless. A winning candidate should have a healthy blend of realism and optimism, and a track record of persuading others to accept change.

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A leader must make good decisions. This generally requires experience, and an ability to control the emotional influences that distort decision-making. The consultants test a candidate's ability to think through issues by using case studies, ideally ones that reflect issues in the candidate's own organization. The precise answer is not as important as their thinking process under pressure.


The individual must be capable of withstanding the pressures of leadership, facing attacks and setbacks with aplomb and continuing to take educated risks. The consultants offer candidates a hypothetical scenario, and evaluate the answers according to three key elements of courage: commitment to core values, ability to navigate uncertainty, and patience.


Leaders are passionate, thirsting with a drive to succeed ethically. The consultants find that in interviews for leadership positions, passionate candidates speak convincingly about how the organizational mission and their personal passions are intertwined. "Using the details of one's life story to show why the job matters on a visceral level is important. A passionate candidate will explain how this life story feeds into the demands of the job for which she is interviewing," they note.

Candidate selection, be it for hiring or promotion, is always complicated. You may not do a lousy job at leadership selection and the seven criteria raised here are not novel, but the book, which is clearly written and thorough, would certainly help to give an improved focus and some valuable techniques for your leadership recruitment.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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