What if we chose leaders differently?

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In most businesses, most of the time, people get "promoted" to lead a group because they're good at something else. We choose top salespeople as sales managers. The great lathe operators become team leaders.

That often doesn't work. The people we pick are talented and hard working. But many of them don't want to be a boss. Others seek to be a boss because it's the only way to promotion and preferment.

Today people higher up the org chart pick new leaders. What if we reversed that? What if we elected new leaders? It works for democracies. Why not business?

The Roman Catholic Church has a couple of thousand years experience in selecting leaders. They call them priests and they ordain them. Then you're a priest forever. You can move up to a Monsignor or a Cardinal or even the Pope. This would appeal to those people who think leaders possess some moral power or magic trait that sets them apart.

Most military and public safety organizations combine testing, assessment centers, and review panels to choose people for promotion. It works for them, maybe it would work in business.

And speaking of Armies, one of the most successful in history was the English Army under Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Officers in that Army essentially bought their positions.

We could use a lottery. Those who craved promotion could enter. The winner would be picked from among the entrants.

OK, so this is a little tongue-in-cheek. And, yes, I do have trouble staying serious for long stretches.

But think about this. Seriously. How can we do a better job of choosing leaders?

Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 8/7/2009 6:03 PM Bret Simmons wrote:
    Wally, part of the problem is the assumptions underlying the question. We should actually be questioning whether we need to set up systems in which it is necessary to have to select leaders. If leadership were designed into the system differently, then the constraint is transformed.

    Assumptions are powerful drivers of behavior. We need to challenge them boldly from time to time.

    Keep up the good work, Wally!
    Reply to this
    1. 8/7/2009 6:19 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Excellent point, Bret. Perhaps we need to look at places like Semco or Gore to see how they handle this.

      Reply to this
  • 8/7/2009 6:47 PM Mark Allen Roberts wrote:
    I recommend we look for managers that are illustrating some of the traits of leaders like; firm, fair, and consistent as well as giving as much focus to the relationship with others as the execution of objectives.
    I discuss this in my blog post : Mentor Moment #2: You don’t have to be a Prick -Ly person, to become a leader, http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/mentor-moment-2-you-dont-have-to-be-a-prick-ly-person-to-become-a-leader/
    We must promote those who gain power by lifting others up versus pushing others down.
    Mark Allen Roberts
    Reply to this
  • 8/7/2009 8:41 PM SDM wrote:
    I agree with your opening statement about promoting people who are good at their job happened to me and now I am unhappy. My other comment is isn't the interview process end with an elected hire. Kind of sort of???
    Reply to this
  • 8/8/2009 6:21 AM Stress Training Mark wrote:
    mmmmm.....Re the English army and money/class resulting in leadership positions - Wellington should be presented alongside the "asses leading lions" of WW1 who got so many killed. Not a good idea but I'm guessing you know that

    All the best from Brighton (UK),
    Reply to this
    1. 8/8/2009 8:22 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the perspective, Mark. I don't think I'd agree with you on Wellesley, but it remains that the army did quite well with offers selected by their checkbooks.

      Reply to this
  • 8/8/2009 8:19 AM LauraJDaley wrote:
    Because we are creatures of our own biology, and biologically modeling is such a powerful teacher, most of us lead as we have been led, by our parents, teachers, clergy, sports coaches. If we have been lucky enough to have a good model, we may be able to display the characteristics that allow us to lead, motivate, coach and develop others. So maybe we let effective leaders in our organizations promote the new regime, mentor them and develop the all-star team we need.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/8/2009 8:25 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Laura. I really like the core of that, which I understand as using the best we have to put together the program for others.


      I've found that the first supervisor, in a career and in a company, has an inordinate influence. So I'd also like to see the best we have put in places where they can set the example for new folks.

      Reply to this
  • 8/8/2009 9:10 AM Rodney Johnson wrote:
    Wally, I really like the some of the work out of Elliot Jacques and his work on time horizon. He demonstrated a correlation to an individuals time-horizon and their ability to become a leader (because leaders need to have a longer time horizon to do their work and lead those below them)
    Reply to this
    1. 8/8/2009 9:19 AM Wally Bock wrote:
      I know the concept, but not that particular work, Rodney. Do you have some pointers you can share?
      Reply to this
      1. 8/8/2009 12:50 PM Rodney Johnson wrote:
        Wally, rather than spend time to try and explain time horizon, I would rather insert a couple links from writers more prolific than I.



        Time horizon is a simple idea with a profound impact when looking at the organization - and which leaders actually have the capacity to lead.

        Hope this helps.
        Reply to this
        1. 8/8/2009 2:21 PM Wally Bock wrote:
          Thanks, Rodney
          Reply to this
  • 8/9/2009 10:53 PM Kyle Ryman wrote:
    Howdy Wally,

    Like you said, a lot of people are promoted based on their performance as individuals...which has little correlation to their future performance as a leader. I say little because some of the same characteristics that make someone a successful individual do transfer (good work ethic, discipline, etc.).

    I can tell you that I have only ever seen new leaders become good leaders through experience. Sure, you can give them books, lectures, motivational speeches, and cutesy handouts with leadership principles in bullet format. But there just is no substitute for experience.

    But yet, the organization still needs a leader (that's why you're promoting the guy in the first place!). I think more organizations need to have a legitimate training program (not some bull 2 hour lecture for new managers and a pat on the back).

    The military is a good example of this. For instance, officers go through a 4 year program (except for OCS...I won't go into that) where they get hands on practice leading. And the best part? They get to learn in a sheltered environment where their decisions actually don't have life or death consequences (which, one day, they will).

    Businesses can use this model also. No, it doesn't need to be four years and it doesn't need to involve going out into the woods with fake M-16s and yelling "bang bang." Those are just the vehicles the military uses to train leadership since it correlates nicely to a skill set (small unit tactics) that officers will need to have in the Army. Businesses could throw their people into volunteer organizations (newly created or existing) to train leadership. It is a sheltered environment (their abilities or inabilities won't impact the company) and they are free to learn. And the bonus. Leading in volunteer organizations is a lot harder than it is leading in a business setting. So, when they get to a business setting they are going to think "wow! This is so much easier!"

    Just my 2 cents.


    Reply to this
    1. 8/10/2009 8:39 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for those comments, Kyle. I like the part about using actual short-term leadership roles as training events. I've some police agencies where they're also used as screening events and incorporated into the promotion process.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 7:43 AM Charles wrote:
    I'm not sure we can look at our political process for any inspiration of success. There are more well run companies than governments.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 8:45 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      I disagree. I'm not suggesting that we look at the current government of any particular moment as a model of excellence. But, in a serious vein, choosing leaders by vote has been a consistently good tool for selecting leaders in governments back to Athens. It's been used by military and public safety organizations as well as portions of several companies. So we know it can work, at least as part of the mix.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 8:12 AM Kelli Schmith wrote:
    One of the most common laments I hear from disillusioned professionals is "I may not know how to run a company, but I do understand that employees want to work for managers who care about them as individuals. How do executives lose sight of that?" Let's find the companies that turn themselves inside out to lead and inspire their teams differently (instead of upside down to simply "do" things differently).
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 8:53 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Kelli. You give me an opportunity for one of my mantras. A leader's jobs are to accomplish the mission and care for the people. Both are important.


      See my post "Caring for Your People: Part of the Boss's Job"


      Reply to this
      1. 8/11/2009 6:54 PM Dave Purscell wrote:
        Close... A leader's job is to accomplish the mission BY caring for the people.

        One of my favorite mantras is, "Don't use people to get the job done. Use the job to get people done." I believe that was in the book Leadership (by Daniel Brown). In that model you will never have a lack of future leaders.

        Another organization that does an incredible job of developing their leaders is Heartland Technology Groups (Arlin Sorenson's teams). The ultimate goal is to help the followers succeed at whatever level of the organization they are currently serving.

        Regarding electing leaders -- Unfortunately we will likely just elect more "rock stars" who look good and talk well but have no leadership ability at all.
        Reply to this
        1. 8/11/2009 7:08 PM Wally Bock wrote:

          We'll have to disagree on that one, Dave. You can care for your people without moving an inch toward the accomplishment of the mission. And you can certainly accomplish the mission without caring for your people. They're two separate things. In the best organization they are in sync most of the time, but not always.

          Reply to this
          1. 8/11/2009 7:27 PM Dave Purscell wrote:
            I agree...we can disagree. But I think it is semantics. Both are essential. You may be able to accomplish the mission without caring for your people (depending on your mission). But then, where will your next generation of leaders come from.
            Reply to this
            1. 8/11/2009 7:33 PM Wally Bock wrote:

              I think that you hit on the insidious reason why it's easy to get away with thinking that you can just pay attention to the mission. The consequences are not immediately visible. The danger is deferred.


              But in a knowledge economy, people complete with their knowledge and relationships are THE source of sustainable competitive advantage. So it will be less and less possible to have some of the kinds of exploitation we've seen.

              Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 8:26 AM Dan McCarthy wrote:
    Wally -
    I love your out-of-the-box (yet tongue-in-cheek) ideas for choosing leaders. I wonder if there's anything we can learn from reality shows, i.e., Survivor, Amazing Race. Real World, American Idol?
    Seriously, choosing leaders is about predicting the future, and as in picking stocks, gambling, the NFL draft, or choosing a mate, it's always going to be a 50/50 proposition at best. We have to rely on a proven track record of success, a desire to lead (for all the right reasons) demonstrated behaviors that really matter (learning agility, decision making), a little bit of innate ability (IQ), and a good dose of luck.
    Perhaps we can improve our track record if we pay more attention to what happens after the coronation. That is, actually develop our leaders.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 8:57 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      I love it! Shoot, if people are willing to endure a reality show to find a life partner, surely leadership cannot be far behind. We can call it "Leadership Survivor." No, wait, that was the GE succession process.


      Seriously, thanks for adding that idea to the mix. It's great.


      Thanks for your other, more serious, comments, too. I don't think we pay enough attention to what happens after the coronation, as you put it. We don't provide either training or development for many newly promoted bosses. And if they don't work out, we leave them in place.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 8:49 AM Ray wrote:
    I think the problem is not how to choose leaders but how do you get rid of them when they have proven not to be what was needed. Because leadership is in control how do you remove them. They make decesions that ruin others life's but when leadership needs to pay the price, it seems they always come out smelling like a rose what is with that? We always reward the top no matter what they do becuse of a contract, but yet unions are no good becuse they want a contract. Do we reward people for decesion making or hard work? Yes we hope for a tidbit from the top thus we will continue to follow the leader no matter what until it is too late, are we lemmings? You decide!
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 8:59 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for those comments, Ray. You've hit on an interesting and often undiscussed issue. For many people in organizations, becoming a boss is the only way to get prestige and more money. Very few places offer any parallel career tracks. So people who wouldn't otherwise want to be a boss choose that role as a way to make a career. It's bad for everyone.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 9:38 AM Jorge Barba wrote:
    Hello Wally,

    there are a few companies that already (and have been doing so or a long time) choose their leaders in a democratic way. W.L Gore and Whole Foods.

    In both companies peers choose the leaders based on respect and less on credentials.

    It's safe to say that both companies are innovative in their own right.

    Here's a video of W.L Gore's CEO talking about their key principles:

    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 11:06 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that. The Gore example is good, but like many of the companies who select leaders "democratically" it mostly seems to happen toward the bottom of the org chart. That may be the right way, but I'm wondering if, above the first line level, we couldn't try some selection by a mix of team members and peers.

      Reply to this
      1. 8/12/2009 4:04 PM Jorge Barba wrote:
        I think you can but it's a difficult challenge since most people have come to accept that there's a boss and that that's the only way of doing things in large companies.

        Yet again I'll highlight W.L Gore, it's an extreme example of leadership by credibility which companies cannot get their head around much less replicate it.

        As you can imagine most people are afraid to try such a model since it makes traditional hierarchies mostly irrelevant.

        I think it's an interesting model to evaluate for choosing leaders.

        Here's another piece for your reading.

        Great discussion going here by the way.

        Reply to this
        1. 8/12/2009 6:42 PM Wally Bock wrote:

          Thanks for sharing that Jorge. I'm not sure what the future company will look like or when a new model will become a dominant model, but I know that there's change underway. It's a combination of structure and how you choose leadership and how you handles discipline and rewards and some things we haven't thought of yet. I appreciate what you've brought to our discussion.

          Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 9:51 AM Michael Conwell wrote:
    I have to admit with Ray. There is a challenge with picking a great or even a good leader but it seems to be much harder to remove that leader. I understand the need for golden parachutes and nice severance package too attract good leadership talent but, I think we have gone a little far with it.

    When you start your professional career you know that you are replicable and you may even hear your college teachers or even your first boss tell you that and to some extent it sits in the back of your mind and is ONE of the factors you push hard to get ahead. Somewhere along the line we lost that with executives. Do you think these executives would have made the same decisions in the last 5 years if they knew they screwed up they would not get a severance package? I have a feeling that they would have stopped and thought a bit more but when you get paid millions for making a good or a bad decision then you don’t have to put as much thought into the consequences.

    Another part of the problem which dove tails into the over compensation of severance packages is the hero complex. You see it every day, we put some of these executives and even athletes on such high pedestals they can do no wrong. This is not to say we don’t have some great executive superstars but they are not heroes. The two best examples are Madoff and Enron executives. They both we regarded as heroes and they both destroyed thousands of families. How could they do this? Its simple, we looked at them as heroes and only a small few every questioned them or their methods. Look what that got us. I would like to say we learned our lesson but I am not sure we have. We still think the really smart bankers who got us into this mess are the ONLY ones to get us out – I disagree.

    I do like the military method of having a panel review a person’s accomplishments and to show their character and leadership skill – as long as it’s not just a group think exercise.

    In the end, leadership comes down to the character, humility and a little fear of failing; after all, isn’t that one of the things we like about a true hero?
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 11:13 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that. You make some good points let me share my views on a few of them.


      I think that the poor decisions of some top executives over the last decades have several cause, including incentive plans, poor governance, and hubris. But I don't think that changing selection would have made much difference.


      I like the military and public service combination of experience, tests, assessment centers and selection panels. But I also know that every system, including the best is subject to some kind of bias and capable of being gamed.


      At the end of your comment, you talk about "true heroes." I think they arise when you put good people in positions of leadership, but I don't think any process can guarantee to select heroes or latent stars. I've got a simple goal. I want us to select people for a boss's job that have a better than even shot at being successful at it. If we can get that, then we can tinker with it.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 9:59 AM Jim P wrote:
    This is an interesting topic Wally. I believe it would be disastrous to elect leaders within companies. Look at our US President. He said what he needed to get elected and has proven that his campaign was all lip service. He pleaded "no earmarks or special interests" and then signs a bill with 8,500 earmarks without reading the bill! I wouldn't change our republic, but I also think that electing business leaders would be terrible. Imagine prospective company presidents campaigning by promising shorter work weeks, more wages, and free health insurance and then not delivering. The turnover in the position would destroy strategic consistency and ruin the company.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 11:15 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Even taking all of that into account, I think we need to consider some kind of election as part of the process. The fact is that, even with many egregious examples, electing leaders has produced generally good results. I'd certainly like to see us follow the lead of companies like Gore and use it for our first line supervisory positions.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 10:14 AM Mary Jo Asmus wrote:
    Great discussion!

    One of the good things the corporation I worked for did was to provide parallel career paths in order to compensate leaders and individual contributors the same for the lower and mid-levels. Although no promises in compensation were made, it allowed those who were more technically oriented (this was a company of scientists) and without the people skills who would not be successful in management to choose to continue in their technical field (as an individual contributor) without being drawn into leadership because of higher pay.

    Now, that didn't take care of those who were more attracted to the perceived "power" of a management position. But it did provide an option. It also allowed those who "tried" leadership/management positions to return to an individual contributor role without losing pay. And, it actually did something to erase the stigma of leaving a management position to "go back to" an individual contributor role.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 11:23 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that, Mary Jo. I'm a huge fan of different career paths. They've worked well in several organizations including universities and police departments. Dr. Ken Nowack has identified four distinct career paths, only one of which is "Managerial" There are people for whom a professional path is better and others who will choose a series of projects. Still others will opt for an entrepreneurial path.


      Providing multiple options for success means, as you suggest, that not fitting one or more of them isn't the stigma, that "going back to the ranks" can be today.

      Reply to this
  • 8/11/2009 11:59 AM Mark Allen Roberts wrote:
    Great Article!

    As the baby boomers exit ( though delayed) we have a real, urgent, pervasive problem : a lack of leaders who were groomed by wise mentors.

    The key is to seek driven yet humble leaders. As I discuss in my blog post : Do you know what you don’t know? http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/do-you-know-what-you-dont-know/ the most dangerous leaders are those who do not know what they don’t know, and they operate from gut and intuition.

    The Bible is very clear about this, I think in Proverbs : Before honor is humility.

    So Wally, what do say we become a part of the solution and keep blogging until our fingers bleed to help the next round of “young bucks” get ready.

    I even started a new tread on my blog www.nosmokeandmirrors.com called :mentor moments, in hopes of establishing strong foundations in those called to lead.

    Great content

    Mark Allen Roberts
    Reply to this
    1. 8/11/2009 12:52 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Mark. You're right that the biggest danger is not knowing what you don't know.


      Youth is often part of the cause. When you're young, especially if you've been even moderately successful, it's very hard to realize how much you don't know and even harder to know how to ask for help. As mentors and coaches, we can help fill that gap.


      Another cause is fear of looking bad or losing authority or reputation. Some of the greatest disasters in military history stem from a commander's unwillingness to look bad or to ask for help or to appear dishonorable. As mentors and coaches, we can help people see choices and consequences.

      Reply to this
  • 8/12/2009 4:10 PM Sean Dougherty wrote:
    Actually, Deloitte & Touche does that. The partners elect the chairman globally and locally. It has worked very well for them. On the other hand, electing presidents hasn't done so well lately, so perhaps making that the standard for corporate governance isn't safe.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/12/2009 6:43 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that, Sean. You've added to my store of knowledge and enriched the discussion. Do you know how other professional consulting or accounting firms handle these issues?

      Reply to this
  • 9/3/2009 8:23 PM Ajo Cherian wrote:
    Maybe it takes good managers to know good managers. I think good managers should look for good management traits in those they wish to promote to leadership and not just look for the best salesman or producer. Perhaps an ugly duckling in sales will become a swan in leadership if the necessary leadership traits are there innately.

    Great to read your posts and perspective.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/4/2009 6:43 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts. My own experience is that it's very rare for a great salesperson, for example, to become a great sales manager. Often top producers have developed their skills to a level of unconscious competence where they do things automatically. Often, they can't explain what they do to others. Also, top salespeople often make poor sales managers because they don't understand why some things are hard for others that are easy for them.


      But that's not true in every case. Many great salespeople also become great sales managers. They're the ones who understand that the sales manager's job is different and work hard to learn that different job and do it well. They also, usually, have some of those leadership aptitudes we've talked about.

      Reply to this
  • 9/26/2009 7:19 PM Nate88 wrote:
    A really different way to choose leaders: instead of voting and being forced to go with the non-wisdom of the majority, let each individual pick their own leader(s).

    Have an open contest where those who wish to lead others (inside any group or for a specific project) compete to attract followers to sign-up. Enabled by modern technology, they would demonstrate their communication skills by explaining their vision, priorities and experience, selling themselves to potential followers. The competing leaders also choose their own leaders for their upward links in the fuzzy hierarchy that develops.

    We can use technology to move beyond the best that the majority can do in a vote. Leaders would be ranked based on the number of followers that sign-up, the total number of followers that their followers have, and so on. One leader might emerge at the top, but more likely would be a small group.

    I am working on a website project to implement this to find real leaders for the future.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/27/2009 9:56 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding your voice and suggestion, Nate. You may already know this, but what you describe has been working at WL Gore for some time. The difference is that there's no need for a formal voting system. Instead, people vote with their attendance. If you call a meeting, I can attend or not. The people that have influence with others wind up as the leaders.

      Reply to this
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