October 19, 2016

Q: Our organization has always put a lot of emphasis on selecting and developing supervisors and managers showing leadership potential. In some cases, our assessment was “bang on” while in other cases we made really bad choices. Each time, we were looking for “transformational leaders”, as this seems to be the way to go. However, it is extremely difficult to find real transformational leaders or to develop those who are lacking in that regard. At the same time, we also had experiences where we selected very good leaders who were great with employees, but who fell short in bringing up expected results or showing the sort of vision we were looking for. Is there something we’re missing? What would you recommend to increase our success rate when it comes to selecting and developing leaders?

Montpellier, France

A: First, let me start by saying that you are not alone and that what you experienced is typical of what many organizations are facing when it comes to selecting and developing leaders. Why is that so? Well, part of the answer is the fact that “leadership” is not a simple concept and that you need to take many things into consideration when it comes to selecting and developing leaders. Transformational leadership is certainly the prevalent theory in the field. However, as with any theory, it doesn’t explain everything, and in the past few years, I have rather worked around a concept that I call “Optimal leadership”.

To illustrate that concept, let’s make an analogy: great leaders are like professional athletes. They excel in their field, they are recognized for their abilities and they bring results, the equivalent of trophies or medals. For athletes, it is safe to say that if you’re on the top ten list of the International Tennis Federation, you will not only likely do well at Wimbledon, but you will also excel on any tennis court around the world. Also, because you are in a top physical condition, because you have resilience and a strong winning attitude, there are good chances that you will also be good at other sports. You may not be the best everywhere, but if you put your mind into it, you will most likely be among the very good performers.

That being said, it doesn’t mean that you have to be on the top ten list or even the top 1000 list to bring some value to the table. I, for one, would probably fall in the bottom 1000 list of tennis players in North America. However, it doesn’t mean that I will not enjoy playing tennis or even win, in my category, the odd tournament at my local tennis club.

The same applies to leadership. If you are a transformational leader with an exceptional vision, there are good chances that your qualities will be recognized in many different settings. However, not all situations require that level of ability. So let’s look at leadership and let’s try to find the best way to “optimize” it. Before I start, let’s define leadership: providing a vision of the future and inspiring others to find ways to make the vision a reality.

Based on my experience and my study of scientific literature, I find that there are four blocks in leadership, namely: content, attitude/personality and scope, to which I add “situation”. The “content” part is obvious. If you are an expert in your domain, people will follow you because you know what you’re talking about. You may not be the most charismatic person, but people will follow your lead. The probability however, is that they won’t follow you, if you try to lead in a different field in which your expertise is not as deep as in your original line of work. Coming back to my example, the fact that you are the number one tennis player in the world doesn’t necessarily qualify you to give advice in professional weight lifting, engineering or medicine, for that matter.

The second block is the attitude/personality aspect that I associate with “transformational leadership”. The leaders, who fit that profile, transform followers by making them more aware of the importance and value of task outcomes and by inducing them to transcend self-interest for the sake of the organization. As a result of this influence, subordinates feel trust and respect toward the leader and they are motivated to do more than they originally expected to do. Transformational leaders act as role models, they provide meaning and challenge, they stimulate innovation and creativity by questioning assumptions, reframing problems and approaching old situations in new ways as well as by paying attention to each individual by acting as a coach or a mentor. Obviously, everybody will agree that these characteristics are desirable. However, getting at that level is not given to everybody, as aren’t the physical and mental abilities of professional athletes.

The “scope” relates to leader’s ability to handle complexity. It is related to Elliott Jaques’ notion of “time span of discretion”. According to Jaques, this concept relates to the length of the longest task an individual can successfully undertake, that notion being categorized along a tier system. “Level 1” comprises jobs involving routine tasks with a horizon of up to three months. “Levels 2 to 4” include various managerial positions with time horizons ranging between one to five years. “Level 5” is the domain of small organization CEOs and large company executive vice-presidents and ranges from five to 10 years. Beyond Level 5, we are looking at exceptional and renowned leaders such as Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, individuals capable of changing the world and setting into motion trends that continue years into the future.

Finally, “situation” relates to the type of leadership that would represent the best fit, considering the situation and the actors involved. This aspect is well covered by Hershey and Blanchard’s “Situational Leadership” theory. In this case, the best approach will depend on the maturity of your employees and the required style (telling, selling, participating or delegating). In this case, if you’re working with new employees with little knowledge and abilities, the telling style (more related to the transactional approach) would work pretty well. Of course, if you’re using the telling style and that you also inspire your employees (transformational leadership), you’re an exceptional leader. That being said, if you are more on the “transactional” side, you will still do a good job.

Now back to your question; knowing that you need to take into consideration four fundamental aspects, your first job is to clearly identify your need. If you want a leader that has a long-range vision that will affect your organization for 3 to 4 years, then you need to select somebody who is at least at Level 3 or 4. Anybody below that level will likely perform below your expectations, even though he or she may have an entirely transformational approach. The same applies to content. Do you want to have somebody, who is an expert in his/her field? Sometimes, this is a prerequisite, as the leader will not have the desired impact on his/her employees, if he/she has not the required expertise. You also have to look at the type of environment, or situation in which your leader will have to work and decide whether it is essential that he/she has all the personality attributes required in a transformational leader.

At EPSI, we recognize that different situations require different types of leaders. Our goal is to “optimize leadership”. To do so, you first need to clearly understand your needs. What is the “time span of discretion” or scope of the job? Do you want to develop the individual to become a leader at the top level of the organization or you want somebody to demonstrate adequate leadership at a lower level? Is content critical? Secondly, you need to properly assess the people you are looking for. Content-wise, a thorough analysis of the CV coupled with an in-depth interview or a valid knowledge test will do the job. For the time span of discretion, a cognitive ability test will help you select the right fit. Finally, the style (personality and attitude) and the “situational” aspects will best be assessed through a personality test or a leadership style test. At EPSI, we developed the LEAD-R, which, contrary to many tools in this category, not only looks at one aspect (e.g. transactional vs. transformational) but also covers important facets such as the motivational aspect, the type of challenges and the preferred environment(s) in which the individual will likely be at his or her best as a leader.

Combining a solid understanding of your needs and the situation at hand with a thorough assessment of the individuals you are looking for will help you make the best decisions and avoid selection errors. Then, based on this diagnostic, you should still try to improve the leadership abilities of your employees, even though there might be a maximum level that will likely be attained.

Hey! I’m still dreaming of playing at Wimbledon. So I keep practicing and taking lessons. I may never play there, but I’m getting slightly better every year.

André Durivage

André Durivage




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