Why Do We Pick Such Bad Leaders? We Focus on the Wrong Things

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Have you ever worked for a boss that was horrible? That’s an easy question to answer, isn’t it!

The person came immediately to your mind (for my staff reading this, if I came to your mind first, you’re fired! I tease – you’re not fired – just come see me after your done reading this…).  Almost all of us, probably 99.99 percent of us, have worked for a boss/leader we thought was just gawd-awful. It’s the perplexing part of leadership.

I like to blame it on the entire leadership book industry. Someone gets a promotion to a leadership position and they instantly go online for the latest leadership babble that’s being sold by some idiot that was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time at a successful company, and now she or he is going to tell us how to be a great leader using seven simple steps. BS!

Focusing on the wrong things

But, really, why do we hire such bad leaders? CNN had an article recently that looked into this:

The short answer is, we focus on all the wrong things, like a candidate’s charm, their stellar résumé or their academic credentials. None of this has any bearing on leadership potential. And despite claims to the contrary, even a candidate’s past results have little bearing on whether the promoted individual will succeed once promoted.

At best, a “track record” tells only half of the story. In a new position, the candidate will have to face new obstacles, deal with a new team, manage more people introduce new products and do it all without a clear road map.”

Ok, so we aren’t focused on hiring the right traits that makes a great leader. The reality is, in most of our organizations, we hire using a “next-man-up” philosophy. “Hey, Jill, is the best producer in the group. Congrat’s Jill! You’re now the next boss!”

About 90 percent of leadership hires happen like this. Most of you will attempt to call that “succession planning,” but it’s not, it’s “convenience planning” — and it’s bad HR.

Can we all agree to one thing (this statement is a setup because I know we can’t agree to this!)? Being able to do the “job” (meaning the specific tasks of the functional area you’re a leader for) has very little to do with one’s success at being a leader.

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What successful leaders have in common

Can we agree? And yet, it becomes the first thing we focus on when going to hire a leader. “Well, how good of a coder were they? How do you expect them to manage coders if they aren’t the best coder?” You’ve had this conversation haven’t you? Most of the best leaders of all time had very little functional skill in the leadership position they were successful in. What they did have were these things:

  • Integrity
  • Passion
  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Judgement
  • Empathy
  • Emotional Intelligence

We pick bad leaders because we don’t focus on the traits listed above. It doesn’t matter if the person can do the job of those they are managing; great leaders will overcome that fact very easily. If that’s your biggest worry, they probably won’t be a good leader anyway.

When you have a great leader, the conversation never revolves around whether the person can do the job of those they manage – it’s a non-issue. They can lead, and real leaders know how to engage those who can do to make their departments great.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


4 Comments on “Why Do We Pick Such Bad Leaders? We Focus on the Wrong Things

  1. I agree to a point. Individual starts don’t always make for star leaders. But you do have to balance that with succession planning. That star coder might have greater aspirations. Find ways to test his/her abilities in a leadership position so you can promote from within. Potential growth in a company will always be a draw. 

  2. The team I lead recently gave me low scores because I don’t know how to do every job they do. I did not attain this supervisory position by coming up through the ranks and because of this, they simply don’t trust that I know what I’m doing. They failed to acknowledge my strong points of passion, integrity and courage to face challenges in our department. They also gave no credit for the positive changes that have been made under my direction. They do, however, expect me to be able to jump in and do their jobs even though I’ve never done what some of them have been doing for 20+ years. It’s a difficult place to be – between a rock and a hard place at times. I will continue to work on the leadership traits listed above, while at the same time learning the functional skills my team expects me to have.

    1.  MM –

      Very typical reaction to a new leader coming in that doesn’t have the current skill sets of the of group they are leading.  I think the best way to address this is by being very obvious out it up front as you transition in.  “You’re right – I can’t do your job – that’s why we have you, but here’s what I can do to help you do your job better…”  Set the expectation immediately that you weren’t brought in to do their jobs, otherwise you wouldn’t need them – would you!

      I do think you have to have an overall understanding of how the function you lead impacts the business – but specific functional skills at certain leadership levels no longer become the most important attribute of a great leader.


  3. I was once told my a senior manager of a business that “You may be great at your job, the customer may even love you, but if you don’t network and you don’t manage up, you will never get ahead”

    Sadly, this manager was right. Results did not matter, whether they were customer service scores, staff satisfaction scores or financial results. If you showed initiative, made a decision without a committee, and earned the respect of your immediate subordinates – these traits were ignored.

    I saw many many “managers” in this particular industry promoted because they attended all the right company events, laughed at all the right senior managements jokes, and “played the game”.

    Now I work as a supplier to this industry (a business where results actually count), I still see many many people in roles who clearly have little to no clue as to what the business is doing, and how it operates. They just networked well.

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