I, like many people, have been thinking a lot about the US presidential campaign. Will we pick the right person? Do we ever pick the “best” person? And how can we know ahead of time whether we’ve got the right person to be our leader?
The puzzle is one that is faced not just in presidential politics, but by all companies. The person at the top can make all the difference in the world, for better or for worse.
Politicians and other leaders from virtually every corner of the globe inevitably disappoint. But the much bigger concern is the mindset of voters, board members, and nominating committees when selecting our leaders — and the uncomfortable realisation that we’re not very good at it.
I’m not even talking about the myriad of mistakes we make in selecting talent when we hire, from preferring people who look and act like us to believing that we can size someone up from an interview (the data on this last point, by the way, shows we are astoundingly bad at that).
The single biggest problem — the fatal flaw in choosing presidents, school board leaders, or football coaches — is that we believe we can predict the future rather than looking for a leader who can quickly adapt to whatever the unpredictable future holds.
Think about what stands as best practice for choosing leaders. You assess the challenges and opportunities your organisation or team faces, and then look for the one person who has the best array of skills to address those challenges and opportunities. And that’s considered state of the art.
But what if we’re not that good at figuring out the most critical challenges and opportunities we want our leader to solve? And even more, what if the issues of the day are eclipsed by new events?
What if we’re not that good at figuring out the most critical challenges and opportunities we want our leader to solve?
With the pace of change as intense as it is across industries and countries, how can we even believe we are able to identify the precise bundle of experiences, capabilities and personality needed to take on what tomorrow brings?
Yet we act as if that is exactly what we are able to do.
In long election cycles like in the US, by the time a new president is sworn in, the entire mandate may have changed.
Was President Obama elected because of his massive experience in addressing global financial breakdown? Of course not, but that dominated the first year of his administration, which coincided with the global financial crisis.
How about President George W Bush? He had been in office for less than eight months when September 11 happened. Did voters anticipate that type of challenge to the country when voting for him?
Certainly not. In fact, how could we? Even the most seasoned executive is vulnerable to this same fatal flaw. But if we can’t predict the future, then how can we figure out who’s got the right stuff to lead us into that future?
First, there is a body of knowledge and experience that is relevant for any top job. It’s like an entry ticket to the game; you can’t be considered if you haven’t at least paid some dues.
Was President Obama elected because of his massive experience in addressing global financial breakdown? Of course not, but that dominated the first year of his administration.
Second, you need a demonstrated track record of accomplishment. Playing is not enough; you have to have some wins under your belt too.
Many organisations stop there, but you really have to go the third, final, step to increase the odds of identifying a great leader. You need to ensure that your would-be leader has the agility to adapt to new and unexpected circumstances.
In the face of change, executives who stick to the same playbook that got them to the top is almost always a failing formula.
The inability of senior executives to adapt and adjust is the real reason companies such as Blockbuster and Kodak went out of business — and the reason companies like Google and Amazon keep beating competitors to the punch, time and time again.
The need for agile leadership is a problem for executives in all organisations. And the more senior the position the more complex, the more ambiguous, the more important the challenges and the decisions a leader is faced with.
It’s precisely for these types of challenges that there is a huge premium on adaptability.
When faced with a failed strategy, we want our leaders to come up with something very different. We want them to adapt, demonstrate flexibility and show they have the agility to be a great leader. And we want them to do it in real-time, all the time.
Which brings us back to this year’s presidential race. The big question is: To what extent do we believe each of the candidates will be that agile leader most needed in times of crises? A leader who will be able to assess in real time what the situation is, and move forward in a reasonable and reasonably quick way? A leader who will likely be faced with new challenges that we don’t know are coming, and much sooner than anyone expects?
This is the real question that voters need to ask as we evaluate the widely different skillsets and personalities that have emerged in the race.
Great leaders must be adaptable. Consider the military’s special forces, those highly trained personnel assigned to the most dangerous and unconventional missions. These elite units, which date back to Roman times, select and train warriors for strength, maturity, motivation, and intelligence.
Candidates who make it through to the end are incredibly capable, yet there is one characteristic that is make-or-break in the final analysis: the ability to adapt and adjust and think fresh, in real-time.
And that is the one capability all leaders must have.
Sydney Finkelstein has published 20 books and 80 articles, including the number one bestseller in the U.S. and Japan, Why Smart Executives Fail, based on a six-year study of 51 companies. He is a recognised thought leader on leadership, strategy, and corporate governance, and has worked as a consultant and speaker for major companies around the world, including American Express, Boeing, GE, Novartis, PwC, and many more.
He is also a headline speaker at Talent Management Asia 2016.
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