Catch-22 of tracking down new leaders

like football, is a funny old game. England boss Sven Goran Eriksson told a
packed auditorium at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s
annual conference in Harrogate last month that his former right-hand man, Steve
McClaren, was "the best coach I have ever worked with". Yet
McClaren’s record in the hot seat at premier league Middlesbrough has been far
from spectacular. His side finished last season in mid-table and has made a
poor start to the current campaign, despite having a reasonable amount of cash
to spend on players.

will tell if McClaren can put things right; although with football’s managerial
merry-go-round spinning ever faster, time might not be on his side.

this example neatly illustrates, however, is the ability-performance paradox
that exists in all organisations: highly talented individuals don’t always
deliver as leaders. Some fail because their emotional intelligence doesn’t
match their IQ. But the main reason is that talent alone cannot compensate for
deep-rooted organisational dysfunction.

research shows that high-performing organisations are those that find a
suitable blend of management systems, HR practices and human relationships.
Successful leaders have the knack of identifying the blend and encouraging
their people at all levels to pursue a strategic purpose or vision, sometimes
called an organisation’s ‘big idea’.

with the knack cannot be easily identified by their formal skills or
performance in specific jobs. Many top football managers – including Eriksson,
Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson – were players of limited ability.
Similarly, many people in other walks of life have excelled as leaders, despite
their apparent prior limitations.

creates an intriguing market dilemma as stiff competition for the limited
supply of identifiable winners causes executive salaries to soar. It is
therefore vital that organisations seek more effective ways of spotting
leadership potential and, in particular, nurture potential from within.

US management guru Jim Collins told CIPD delegates in his keynote address –
based on research published in the bestseller Good to Great – outstanding chief
executives are usually internal appointments. Recruiters should not be swayed
by personal charisma but look instead for individuals who are quiet,
self-effacing and ambitious for the organisation above purely personal advance.

will question Collins’ championing of the modest leader. The ejection from
office of the hapless former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith is an
obvious heresy against the Good to Great credo. Few would argue that ‘the quiet
man’ had what it takes to lead a major political party – great leaders usually
have a bit more personal ‘oomph’ than Collins suggests. But Collins is surely
right to challenge the widely-held view that charismatic or maverick leaders
always perform best.  

John Philpott, Chief economist, CIPD

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