A good friend of mine has a consulting practice in leadership development and executive coaching. At lunch the other day we were discussing various aspects of hiring and developing leaders. As you might imagine, we have some overlapping, but different, ideas about what can and cannot be assessed in leaders today.
From my I/O Psychology perspective, there are many aspects of leadership that can be reliably measured for selection or promotional decisions. For instance, there are very straightforward ways to accurately measure cognitive ability, decision making, and coaching skills. Leaders get evaluated on these via self-report tests and/or assessment centers every day.
However, there is another aspect of leadership which is more difficult to define and measure which has to do with the emotional bond created between leaders and followers. This can be referred to as personal charisma, and its existence is a paramount element of leadership.
Interestingly, the research on personal charisma shows that it moves from what is expressed by a leader to how those behaviors are perceived by followers. For instance, some sports fans are more drawn to gregarious players that project a lot of joy (think Dwight Howard), while others gravitate toward those who do not bring as much attention to themselves (think Tim Duncan). The perception of who is more charismatic has nothing to do with their performance, but everything to do with who we identify with more and thus, are more likely to follow. Like beauty, the perception of who is being genuine and who is being “slick” is in the eye of the beholder. This research is interesting for understanding why individuals follow leaders, but not so helpful for selecting leaders since the agreement on these leadership perceptions is quite low.
There is widespread agreement that effective leaders can be identified based on the skills outlined above, but the consideration of personal charisma can compensate for some deficiencies. Of course, you can come up with exceptions to the rule. In the media we may see exceptional leaders who lack an emotional connection with people. But for all we know, they could be terrific coaches and very personable in one-on-one situations.
Effective coaching should help leaders improve their skills and their ability to connect better with others, if not help them become more charismatic. However, from a selection perspective, the subjectivity that helps define personal charisma (or, the related issue of cultural fit), does not bode well for establishing more efficient ways to select leaders. More often than not, that fact is a result of:
A failing in the field of industrial psychology that we cannot find THE leadership trait(s) that can predict effectiveness across situations, or
A reminder that human behavior (and perceptions of such) has a great deal of variability and that we have to live with the predictors of leadership behavior that we have right now (which, by the way, are not bad).
Regardless, the conversation was an important reminder that effective leadership is part trait and part situational. Some aspects of leadership like specific and measurable competencies can be strategically used for selection/promotion, but there are other situational behaviors that must be developed over time.
Dr. Warren Bobrow received his Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of Tennessee. He specializes in manager and executive assessments and employee selection. You can read his blog for occasional comments on leadership and other HR topics at www.allaboutperformance.biz/blog. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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