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Leadership for Today: Let's Ask the Right Questions

Here's why we should question the way we’re making decisions.

Key points

  • Only 22 percent of working professionals believe that business leaders have the right mindset to thrive in the future economy.
  • As a result, we try to identify what great leaders should look like in the following years.
  • Instead, we should question the way we’re making decisions and focus on the means we have to objectively identify our leaders.

Recent events have shed a light on the world’s leaders. Who hasn’t heard about Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand COVID-19 strategy, President Zelensky’s approach to leadership during war times, or Elon Musk’s management style and layoffs at Twitter? Whether they are political or organizational, each of their decisions is awaited and commented upon.

This spotlight is not without consequences. At best, it has revealed limits in current practices. At worst, it has raised the incompetence of some: indeed, only 22 percent of working professionals believe that business leaders have the right mindset to thrive in the future economy. These conclusions lead experts to question the repercussions of the current crisis on corporate management, but also popular media to try to identify what great leaders should look like in the following years. These are the wrong questions: Rather, we should question the way we’re making decisions and focus on the means we have to objectively identify our leaders.

The Future of Leadership?

Curious, inspiring, and placing people first. For many, these skills are among those that best characterize the leaders of tomorrow. No one can deny that, at a time when AI and remote are being popularized, the role of leaders seems to be increasingly refocusing on these behavioral skills. However, are we experiencing a profound transformation of leadership models? It's unlikely.

Science has long highlighted that leadership is a question of power with people, rather than over people. Several studies have shown that openness, emotional stability, and agreeableness explain leaders’ success the best, or that leadership behavior oriented toward people, rather than on tasks, accounts for better team effectiveness. These behaviors, such as empathy, positively influence employee satisfaction and create a ground for psychological safety, encouraging people to explore new ways of doing things.

Also, to overcome this unsatisfactory "tasks versus relationships" dichotomy, new models have emerged, such as transformational leadership: a leader who shares a vision and optimizes relationships between all, considers individual needs, encourages the expression of ideas, and mobilizes people. This form of leadership has been one of the most studied, with approximately 40 percent of academic publications on leadership in the 2000–2012 period being about transformational leadership. It should, however, be noted that, even if certain traits of good leaders are universal, it is mainly the context that will call for one form of leadership or another. Leadership is, therefore, a process of adaptation to the needs of a culture, situation, or specific group of people.

Understanding the secrets of leadership doesn’t seem to be necessary: decades of studies have contributed to revealing its essential foundations. Addressing other questions is more relevant. Why, despite solid evidence from science, are these qualities still not those of the current business leaders? Why is this question of the ideal leader constantly brought back to the fore with each social or economic crisis? Why are we continuing to promote leaders who do not match the models that are considered effective? Today's world has catalyzed our perception of the gap between what leaders should be and what they really are. This gap is not necessarily linked to a collective and intrinsic misunderstanding of what good leaders are: Rather, it’s the consequence of our poor decision practices, which are still too often based on intuition.

Emergence…Is Not Performance

Even if we consider an intuitive decision to be a more accurate reflection of who we really are and of our deeply held beliefs, the truth is less attractive: In hiring, intuition is a myth. Also, relying on a subjective perception to make decisions leads to selecting leaders to fulfill our unconscious desire of matching them with our "implicit leadership theories," rather than for their true potential. In short, the criteria that make leaders emerge are different from those that make them perform.

Several studies have demonstrated that the naive and automatic conceptions that we all have about what makes leadership are essentially centered on criteria that do little to explain real effectiveness, such as tyranny or masculinity: These beliefs have appeared to be remarkably stable over the past 20 years, despite societal and organizational changes. For example, a meta-analysis shows that, while agreeableness is well correlated with the performance of leaders, it is not correlated with them being promoted to leadership roles: An increase of one standard deviation on the score of agreeableness is even associated with a decrease of 2.8 percent in the probability of being chosen as a leader.

By relying on our intuition in selection and promotion, the leaders of our companies are therefore selected for their confidence and because they look like leaders, and not because they really are. This leads to promoting leaders with narcissistic tendencies, which could prove destructive, and also contributes to creating a pernicious decision-making circle: Leaders with high narcissism are more likely to appreciate and value employees being like them.

Faced with the turbulence of work, it is urgent to fill the gap between science and practice and to structure our processes for selecting leaders based upon objective and quantifiable data, in particular through the use of psychometric tests—personality accounting for 50 percent of leaders’ performance. Hiring for true leadership potential—rather than for the ability to smile during an interview, and based on people's collective accomplishments, are necessary conditions to improve the quality of our leaders. Failing at this will reinforce the prevalence of incompetent and unsuited leaders: Arrogant, egocentric, and hostile individuals excel in seducing and deceiving their audience during interviews and are therefore more likely to take on leadership roles in uncertain times, even though we are warned about their negative impact.

These toxic leaders have the ability to create grand illusions, but which soothe our anxieties and help us to bear the unbearable: We tend to choose them, instead of more humble and sincere leaders, to ensure our psychological comfort. Selecting leaders based on valid success criteria and using more science-driven and standardized methods, will allow distinguishing transformational from pseudo-transformational leaders, despite the thin and misleading border existing between the two. Finally, even if the expectations can slightly differ according to the context, the final point of good leadership is stable and known. The challenge is rather to understand how to get there without getting lost along the way.

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