Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? A book review by Bob Morris

Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? A Better Way to Evaluate Leadership Poitential
Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran
Jossey-Bass (2011)

How and why to cope with a leadership evaluation and development crisis to produce more effective leaders

As Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis suggest in Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, leaders define themselves by their choices. They assert that what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran suggest that many (if not most) organizations define themselves (for better or more often worse) by their evaluation and development of effective leaders, by how many of the important calls their leaders get right when deciding whom to hire, whom to promote, and whom to support. As they explain in the Introduction, they devoted decades of research to develop a model for effective leadership. They share in this book their response to the question posed by the title. More specifically, they identify and then rigorously examine seven leadership attributes that are the most vital: integrity, empathy, emotional intelligence, vision, judgment, courage, and passion. No news there. What caught my eye and what, I think, will be of greatest interest to other readers is what Cohn and Moran offer when explaining “how to decode and connect these attributes…how they fit together. Our breakthrough insight is an overall framework for making leadership selection decisions.” These are among the “smart calls” to which Tichy and Bennis also refer.

Think of the challenge as a “puzzle” and the attributes among the most important “pieces.” How to put all the pieces together? Cohn and Moran devote a separate chapter to each of what they characterize as the seven “building blocks,” then reveal in Chapter 8 “A Better Way to Choose Leaders.” The information, insights, and recommendations provided within the book’s narrative are research-driven, primarily by interviews of more than 100 CEOs and other leaders. For example, those among the “A-C group” include Lance Armstrong, Jeff Bezos, Bono, Richard Branson, Michael Capellas, Richard Clarke, Jerry Colangelo, and Delos (“Toby”) Cosgrove.

Other resources include decades of research conducted by James Kouzes and Barry Posner;also, various leadership development programs (e.g. AT&T, Allianz SE, McKinsey & Company, “New CEO Workshop” at Harvard Business School, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Team USA). They also picked the brains of thought leaders such as the aforementioned Tichy and Bennis as well as James MacGregor Burns, Daniel Goleman, K. Anders Ericsson, and Roger Martin.

Of course, it remains for each reader to determine what is most relevant among the abundance of material provided by Cohn and Moran in their book. The same is true of another recently published book that I also hold in very high regard, The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else, in which George Anders focuses on expert talent spotters in three broad sets: the public performance worlds (e.g. sports, arts, and entertainment), high stakes aspects of business (especially finance and the information economy), and “heroic professionals” of public service (e.g. teaching, government, and medicine). “It’s easy to see [begin italics] how [end italics] they operated, but it took a while to understand [begin italics] why [end italics].” What he learned is shared in this book. For example, with people as with organizations, “the gap between good and great turns out to be huge,” perhaps as much as a 500% difference. The financial implications are vast and substantial.

All organizations needed leadership at all levels and in all areas. Although the two books take different approaches to an immensely complicated and critically important subject, executive talent evaluation, each can be of incalculable value to those who are guided and informed by the material provided. In fact, I highly recommend that both be read and (preferably) re-read, then frequently consulted by every one involved in an organization’s recruitment, hiring, onboarding, and leadership development initiatives.



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