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Leadership is demonstrated - not measured

Bradley de Souza | Oct. 23, 2014
Bradley de Souza calls for an end to the current 'leadership by numbers' obsession - and why failing a leadership exam isn’t always the worst outcome.


Over the years I have experienced both good and bad leaders. On one occasion I was fortunate enough to work with a gifted and naturally talented leader who was a part of the team. The person commanded loyalty and respect from his own staff. He also had a cult like following with people who worked for him over the years as his career developed.

The organisation where we worked had a leadership program that was largely equivalent to an MBA. It represented a big financial investment on behalf of the company and demanded a significant amount of time and commitment from the individuals selected to participate.

After lengthy consideration by a management group, only a very few people were deemed suitable to go forward to the evaluation process. Potential candidates were examined using an online system of tests, questionnaires, and a plethora of tools that try to give insight into leadership potential.

I decided to put the manager forward for consideration and submitted a strong proposal for his candidacy. He was accepted and the process of evaluation began. Once the results were reviewed, I received a call from the head of organisational development within the company. He insisted I have a sit down meeting to discuss the results and also corrective' actions. To my surprise the manager had failed the leadership evaluation. So bad were the results that it even cast doubt on his ability to do his current job as a departmental manager.

Shocked and surprised I decided to deliver the bad news myself, in person, to the manager. His reaction was a lesson in grace, tenacity, and resilience. He responded in a manner, which basically summed up that you can't win all the battles and that we must push onwards, upwards.

I decided to review the situation. I knew he had great feedback and engagement from the staff. His internal customers spoke very highly of him and his ability to meet their requirements. External stakeholders valued his contributions and even people outside of the direct day-today activities valued this person. He was a master of stakeholder management at all levels.

It was then that I concluded that the evaluation must be wrong. How could such an obvious leader be read so wrong?

Leadership boot camps, yearlong programs, even one-day workshops tend to drive a false sense of success in those people selected to be leaders. The candidates are, more often than not, chosen for political reasons rather than true potential or capability.

For me it became clear that leadership isn't just about theory. It is a quality or behaviour that can't be truly taught. Some can mimic the traits but people quickly spot the mimic from the real thing.


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