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Leadership: The way you think about it is broken


Think leadership rhetoric needs reinvigorating? The Chemistry Group's Tom Quayle thinks it needs a lot more than that.

Most people think about leadership in an archaic way. And as much as I don’t mean to point the finger, chances are, you’re one of them. Frankly, the entire leadership belief system needs upending. Until we - as people in businesses up and down the country, up and down the corporate ladder - make some fundamental changes to those beliefs, the situation won’t get better.

Leaders today are mostly a product of their organisational culture. And the facts remain that organisations 1) are mostly male dominated, 2) value process over people and 3) value experience over attitude and behaviour. These are three fundamental distinctions in large businesses - which is where the majority of people in the UK work. 

The problem is, and you’ll recognise this, that it is socially unacceptable to promote or hire someone because of their behaviour or attitude, yet promotion on experience or length of tenure is seen to be deserved. For us to change that horribly old-fashioned thinking, we need to look at everything very differently. Bear with me while I go off on a tangent about online dating. It will make sense, I promise. 

Online dating is a great parallel to the challenges these large businesses currently face. Seen as unconventional a few years ago, believers in the system made their own success and carried on without buckling to social acceptance. Those trailblazers are now seen as completely ‘normal’. In business, it’s the same thing. To get results, we need to do things a different way.

Find the (relevant) data

Lots of HR teams and businesses talk about data. Frankly most of the time no one knows what they’re supposed to do with it. It starts with what you’re trying to define – what does a great leader for my business look like?

Perhaps the biggest message in data is that there is nothing to suggest that great leaders become great leaders because of their experience. Experience is the only data point most large organisations use when making people decisions, unfortunately it’s the least relevant one (our research shows that experience is the least reliable predictor of success).

"...No matter what organisation you’re in, more often than not, you’ll have a far more successful leader if they can build relationships, interacting well with others, as well as be an authority, making independent decisions."

Indeed, the majority of businesses are backwards in the sense that they don’t promote their people based on true leadership potential. Defining ‘true leadership potential’ is all about the data points behind someone’s intellect, values, motivation and behaviour. Predicting an individual’s future performance is based on measuring these and matching them to 'what good looks like' in a particular business, including where the business is in its lifecycle.

Indeed, the lifecycle is critical to defining the type of leader needed. For instance, a leader needed in a business transformation looks completely different to a leader that sustains and maintains an organisation. So what a great leader looks like now, won’t be the same in five years. Or what makes a good leader in one company, is unlikely to make a good leader in another. Which goes to highlight why experience doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to success and results. We need to use data to predict high performance, so we get high performing leaders. 

The problem most of us find working with data is that it’s harder work, it takes longer and always bubbling behind it is the social unacceptability of adopting and trailblazing new beliefs and processes. How, for instance, will you handle a situation where data tells you to promote or hire someone who has exactly the right motivation and attitude, but little experience? That is no doubt a move that will be questioned by many around you.

The leadership personalities that work, and don’t work

Right now, businesses mostly miss the fundamentals when hiring leaders. For instance there are combinations of personality that work and some that don’t. Studies show the correlation between performance and certain personality scales, but very few businesses use these rigorously.

From profiling thousands of leaders and reading studies years over, we know that no matter what organisation you’re in, more often than not, you’ll have a far more successful leader if they can build relationships, interacting well with others, as well as be an authority, making independent decisions. On the flip side, these personality traits completely derail in leadership if you have someone who is dominant in one of these traits, and weak in the other. 

Those simplistic elements don’t change, but where your business is in its lifecycle or the type of business you operate can have a profound effect.  For example, for some organisations, high detail is critical. Best practice is only best practice for your business. It’s not what Joe Bloggs Limited down the road is doing. 

Most of us, by nature, are followers of trends, which actually brings us right back to leadership and why getting it right is so important. What is needed is research time - and a dash of bravery.

At the end of the day, organisations have always tended to funnel people through a certain route; they work with a frame of old beliefs about what a leader looks like. Until that frame is changed - using data to predict high performance in individual businesses - nothing is going to improve. 

This article first appeared on our sister site HRzone, the home of HR.

Tom Quayle is behaviour change architect at The Chemistry Group

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