Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders

Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?
Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran

This book is the result of years of consulting practice and interviews with over 100 corporate CEOs and other leaders designed to find a better way to identify and select corporate leaders.  There is little disagreement with the premise of the book as stated in its title, so there is no question that research and discussion in this area is needed.

The authors identify seven characteristics to assess when recruiting and selecting leaders: integrity, empathy, emotional intelligence, vision, judgement, courage, and passion.  To those who feel other qualities or expressions should be on the list, the book’s Appendix A includes a list and short descriptions of “Commonly Used (and Misused) Leadership Terms”.  The book’s narrative also addresses some examples of terms which are similar to, but not as precise as the terms the authors prefer.

The first seven chapters are each dedicated to one of the characteristics, with illustrations, case studies, and a section on how to evaluate presence of the characteristic in a leader.

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to outlining the process to follow when recruiting leaders.  The outline may prove disappointing, for two reasons.  First, the outline does not include the detailed information necessary to illustrate the steps.  Second, two of the steps potentially or actually involve retaining outside consultants to perform the work: vetting of executive resumes according to standard criteria and the interview process designed to evaluate the top candidates using the seven criteria. 

I heartily endorse the authors first step in the hiring process – determining what kind of leader you want.  Both leaders and leadership opportunities present themselves in many shades and flavors.  The hiring authorities (e.g., board of directors, CEO, etc.) need to candidly answer questions.  What leadership qualities does our corporate culture embrace?  Given our current and likely future table of organization, what talents and qualities do we need to compliment what already exists in our organization?  Are we too quick to look for a copy of the last leader we loved?  Are we too quick to look for the polar opposite of the last leader who failed? 

Finally, the authors address the importance of executive coaching to help leaders improve their performance in characteristics where they may need help.  Unfortunately, their illustration of the benefits of this practice was not as strong as it might have been.  Also, I would have loved it if they would have mentioned Buckingham’s work on talent maximization and contrasted it with their own more traditional approach to coaching.

I recommend the book as one component of designing your approach to hiring leaders.  In conjunction with other books like Who, First, Discover Your Strengths, and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Why Are Bad at Picking Good Leaders? will help you determine the best leadership development course for your organization.