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Take me to your leader … if you can find one

When I was a kid, one of the popular notions was that aliens would land on Earth and say “Take me to your leader.” Today, if a UFO dropped out of the sky (it could happen) asking for directions to our leaders, we’d stare at each other and scratch our heads.

We have been experiencing a severe drought of good leadership for a very long time. Our civic leaders over the last 10 or so years have been benign at best, provincial leaders are demonstrating a slightly embarrassing “stage five clinger” approach to governance. And federally, who knows? This group seems to have mastered the art of speaking without saying anything.

And then there is the business sector. What has happened to corporate leadership? How can a company like Target get it so incredibly wrong? There are many similar examples, although none on such a grand scale.

Leadership is one of my favourite topics. It has interested me since the day I started working because it has such a significant impact on all of our lives.

In my career, I’ve had about a dozen bosses or leaders, and I’ve been well acquainted with dozens more. Of those, there are two or three who I thought were exceptional. They knew how to get the most from their people and thus, move the organization forward. They were highly respected and the people who worked for them would have done anything for them. They were very successful because of their leadership skills.

What about the other bosses or leaders I’ve known? Most were mediocre, and a few were absolute disasters. The mediocre were, typically, ineffective in the way the operated. They stayed mostly in their offices, had little conact with those in their charge and rarely provided real answers to questions. Essentially, they floated under the radar. The disasters simply had no idea how to manage or lead and ended up causing some damage before they were found out and shown the door.

The first step to leader is choosing the right emoticonsHow did we get to this place? I believe good leaders are developed over time. Some have a natural ability, but most have learned it through hard lessons and a good measure of solid mentoring. The good ones also possess a great sense of humility. What I mean by that is they put the organization’s interests (including staff) ahead of their own. I don’t see this very much anywhere I look these days. What I see is self-centred leaders who think they are just awesome. So often these days I see people with no people skills, placed in leadership roles. There is nothing worse than a bad manager who thinks they are a good manager.

The real problem, I think, is the trend over the last number of years has been selecting a leader based solely on their credentials, rather than their fit to the organization. Richard Branson has stated that personality is his first priority when hiring because you can teach skills, but you can’t teach personality. (But then again, what does Sir Richard know about leadership?)

Most organizations simply don’t spend enough time getting to know their prospects. They look at the degrees listed on their resumes, spend an hour or so interviewing them with rehearsed behavioural questions like “tell me about a time when,”  then maybe another hour or so interviewing  the ones on the short list, then they get hired. People invest way more time and effort buying a TV.

The thing is, any interviewee can search the web for the top 25 behavioural interview questions and develop very well-rehearsed answers that fit perfectly and impressively into the mould. Doesn’t seem like a very accurate way to measure a candidate.

Not surprisingly, employee satisfaction is at an all-time low. This has to have an impact on productivity and profitability.

Never having been a CEO of an organization, maybe I’m missing a piece of the puzzle. Maybe the “Empty Suits” (as a friend of mine refers to them) know something the rest of us don’t. But if that’s the case and we continue down this path, I think I’d rather hitch a ride with the real aliens.

— TOM SCOTT

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