He drank too much, suffered from severe depression and was often rude. He switched sides more than once. He was ridiculed by his peers and loathed by many. He made grave errors and for many years was regarded as a failure. But more than 40 years after his death, Winston Churchill topped a recent BBC poll as the greatest ever British leader.
Churchill’s life and personality, like those of so many high-profile leaders, illustrates how difficult it is to identify and measure leadership traits and qualities. Yet strong, capable leaders are crucial for many types of organisation, while for businesses, leadership is fast becoming a defining feature of success.
A recent poll by Richmond Events shows that finding people with the right leadership qualities is the top concern for HR professionals in the UK.
Measuring what has been traditionally seen as a pretty vague concept is also becoming more commonplace. The public sector now places so much emphasis on leadership measurement that a national centre has been established to develop the next generation of leaders.
Professor Malcolm Higgs, director of the school of leadership at Henley Management College, says the whole area is extremely problematic for employers.
“Leadership is a real problem because there are so many different variables and contexts. Measurement has to be handled very carefully. There are a range of measures around, but there’s still a huge debate about the relative merits.
“Any formal measure will be limited, and the main problem with current measures is their scope. They are usually too prescriptive – there isn’t one right way of leading people,” he explains.
But Higgs believes you can identify certain measurable behaviours and qualities that good leaders should possess.
He uses a measure that looks at behaviour and how it can impact on overall change. Based on 360-degree and self-assessment, the system produces an overall profile and an individual score, which is then set against specific dimensions.
The five key areas Higgs measures are vision, the ability to engage staff, enabling others to be successful, openness to ideas and a commitment to developing people. “Successful leaders all do a mix of specific things very well. The way they do these things may vary greatly, and will usually reflect their own personality,” he says.
According to Higgs, the best leaders also possess high levels of self-belief, authenticity, drive, self-awareness and integrity. “I don’t buy into the theory that everybody can become a good leader,” he says. “Some of these traits can be measured and are closely tied in with emotional intelligence.”
Penny Tamkin, an associate director at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has developed a leadership research strategy. She says that UK companies need to start taking a much longer-term view.
“In most organisations, leadership is normally judged by the senior managers. There’s a much greater need to find out what subordinates think,” she says. “Employers aren’t listening enough from the bottom up.
“Too many companies have a muddled and unfocused view of what leadership means to them. If there is a very strong message about leadership goals, it’s easier to measure success,” she says.
The use of 360-degree feedback and a greater input from junior staff can lead to a more common understanding of an organisation’s leadership requirements. Tomkin also says that firms need to be more strategic around the whole issue of leadership and how it fits in with the overall business strategy.
Professor Keith Grint, director of the Lancaster Leadership Centre at the university’s management school, also says there needs to be a shift in attitudes about leadership and how it is measured within organisations.
He believes there should be more emphasis on the process, rather then the results, of finding talented leaders.
“Lots of people have tried to measure leadership, but it’s very, very difficult,” Grint says. “You need to strip out all the other variables that might impact on the results, but it’s a real conundrum.
“People attribute success or failure to individuals when it really should be more about the organisation as a whole. We need to get away from the assumption that measuring leadership is just about senior positions,” he adds.
Although employers currently place a lot of stock in psychometrics, Grint warns this approach can be flawed because each firm is different and will have different goals.
“The key issue is measuring the organisation rather than the individual. Metrics have often tended to just look at the financial aspects and the bottom line. You can try to get a handle on certain aspects of it but I think it’s nonsense to try and put specific figures on individual things,” he adds.
Margi Gordon, a leadership expert at management training specialist Roffey Park, says each organisation must measure leadership differently, because the aims, goals and business drivers will vary from firm to firm.
Her research indicates that various groups see things differently, even within their own organisations. For example, senior managers and junior staff in the same company will often disagree about the quality of their leadership.
Gordon says: “There are huge variations within individual companies about what successful leadership means. There are also differing views about the strength of leadership within companies.
“I think organisations are focusing more on what they want from their leaders, and that differs depending on the organisation. Most organisations do want different leadership qualities depending on the corporate objectives or agenda.”
Gordon advocates a range of methods for measuring leadership ability, and says it is crucial that an individual’s ability is put in context with organisational needs.
Employee surveys, 360-degree feedback, focus groups and traditional testing can all be used effectively, but it is also important that HR listens to the ‘corporate chatter’ on leadership throughout the organisation.
“Really, you need a mix of all these measures, because it’s very difficult to isolate leadership from everything else going on within an organisation and pinpoint results,” she adds.
Jane Gillham, director of management development at training firm Pivotal Performance, says many of the traditional academic ways of measuring leadership don’t work.
“The metrics are usually far too hung up on measuring success only in financial terms. It should be measured by the value it adds to the business as a whole, rather than just the bottom line,” she says.
John Fay, managing director of coaching specialists SFL, has worked on leadership development with a number of blue-chip companies such as Lafarge, PC World Business, the Royal Air Force and B&Q.
He advocates a more formal system of measurement based on a multi-factor questionnaire developed at the University of Nebraska. It takes a 360-degree approach and uses a software package to analyse the results. An overall score is then produced based on an academic model of the results.
“You have to be able to measure people against a model, but the problem is people are changing all the time,” he says. “Most people become better leaders over time as their skills develop.
“Any system that’s put into place needs to be based on a sound scientific framework,” he says.
Mixing it up
SFL uses six basic traits to define a leader and investigates whether an individual can be a role model, coach, moderator, performance manager, controller and stimulator of ideas.
Rather than one fixed style, the top leaders need to be able to use a mix of different methods, and adapt their approach depending on the situation and the type of people they are managing.
“When you measure leaders in business, it’s usually the people who have a more inclusive style who come out best,” says Fay. “A good leader understands the particular business situation and changes style accordingly.”
Measuring leadership skills should also cover the will to succeed, moral courage, decision-making, humility, trust, admiration, encouragement and how subjects value others.
“Leadership development is not intangible,” adds Fay. “All the best businesses must be well led. It’s measurable and many businesses are now doing this.”
Although it is often seen as an intangible, hard-to-measure asset, leadership is fast becoming a key differentiator that can be tracked and measured. Training and HR professionals must be clear about what they are looking for, and how they align leadership with business objectives.
David Beckham or John Terry: who’s the leader?
Chelsea footballer John Terry should lead England in this year’s World Cup finals in Germany instead of current captain David Beckham.
That’s the finding of coaching and development firm SFL after it used its software modelling system to compare the leadership skills of several celebrities. It found that Terry outscored Beckham in four of the key criteria the system uses to measure leadership.
The system provides a scorecard based on an individual’s ability to lead, and then calculates their overall ability.
This is rated according to specific behaviours and gives Terry a score of 3.9 – more than double Beckham’s score of 1.8 – for being a role model. Terry also scored 4.0 for motivation, compared with Beckham’s score of 2.0. Both scored similar points as an ideas’ generator, although Terry scored more as a coach.
- Think about the leadership traits that match the organisation’s objectives
- Don’t just focus on the top positions – effective leadership needs to run throughout the organisation
- The leadership style should fit with the organisational, cultural and business strategy
- Develop a long-term policy on the type of leaders the organisation needs
- Give people time to develop. Most people refine their leadership skills as they gain more experience
by Ross Wigham