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A Leadership Test?

Most car owners must find competent mechanics. Most homeowners must find competent plumbers. Most of us need an excellent doctor and lawyer at some time in our lives as well. All of these experts can be certified to practice their crafts. Yet business leaders require no certification, and there is no standardized way to evaluate leadership skill.

Finding great leaders has never been far from the minds of those in charge of companies, business units or projects. After World War II, victorious General Eisenhower was alarmed at the dearth of leadership in the U.S. military. The challenges of today's global economy make the desire for leadership as great as ever. But there is no leadership certification to guide employers who wish to entrust significant accountability to managers they promote or hire. In this article we will explore why there is no such instrument and where employers should focus when seeking leadership.

Personality and Emotional Intelligence
The fact that there is no leadership certification doesn't mean there are no instruments purporting to detect and/or support leadership skill. Conveniently, these are usually objective measures determining an individual's personality profile, leadership style, or behavioral tendencies. Two recent theories exemplify this type of leadership assessment: charismatic leadership and emotional intelligence.

In the early 1990s scholars became re-enchanted with the theory of charismatic leadership. The theory holds that the key feature of effective leaders is personal charisma that people are more likely to follow those with the capacity to articulate visions in memorable and compelling ways. Assess-ment was simple: find leaders who could enthrall. Actually, empirical evidence indicates that leaders who get great results have all kinds of personalities, and they exhibit no consistent charisma. Effective executives who must use leadership come in all shapes, sizes and personality profiles.

In the mid-1990s, Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence. The argument made by Goleman is that great leaders were smart in ways other than verbal and mathematical aptitudes; they were able to manifest high motivational drive, strong control on impulses, empathy for others, and a positive outlook into results. The concept has become so popular that many firms have embedded emotional intelligence into their executive assessment practices. While the concept of emotional intelligence is helpful in broadening the scope of executive skill beyond just cognitive ability, it is not useful as a leadership indicator.

As Justin Menkes says, "The problem is that the behaviors that have been widely cited as indicators of emotional intelligence have long been recognized as personality traits, tending more towards behavioral preferences than actual aptitudes."1

Knowledge and Job Interviews
The traditional method for looking for leaders is through interviews. The Past Behavioral Interview (PBI) is a recent refinement to improve the effectiveness of the interview. The PBI focuses strictly on previous work performance and not personal attributes in an effort to be a more direct measure of leadership competence. In fact, Menkes reports that while the typical job interview is only about 2% accurate, past behavior interviews are closer to 25% accurate.

Yet PBIs are limited. While they provide useful information about the experience and/or knowledge of the candidate, they don't help much in determining how the executive thinks. The executive function requires critical thinking and judgment in situations "right here, right now." How problems were solved or decisions were made in the past may not be helpful for future situations. Executive work is always situational knowledge based on old situations will not certify the executive for effectiveness in new ones.

Chasing the Wrong Things
If neither personality traits nor knowledge are sufficient for assessing executive performance, what should we do to find and place leaders? First, don't waste a lot of time chasing personality traits, behavioral tendencies or past knowledge of the candidates. Executive work requires thinking, dealing with unique, highly contextual situations. Our time is much better spent developing the leadership skill of people we already have. While leaders certainly must have some baseline of native intelligence, knowledge and communication skills, there are no "born leaders." Thankfully we know, in part due to the studies commissioned by Eisenhower decades ago, a lot about developing leadership skill...even though there is no simple objective measure for it.

In other issues, we'll explore how to detect leadership ways that will help you see leadership and talk about how you can help your people develop their leadership skill.

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1Menkes, Justin (2005) Executive Intelligence, p. 159, Collins.


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