In the old days people got to senior leadership levels through their technical skills, ability to drive activity and results, and often, the force of their “executive personality.” That was fine and dandy when the pace of change was relatively slow, processes and tasks were static and less complex, competition was less fierce, and leaders could actually influence organizational outcomes with their own technical skills and task completion. In fact, in a recent letter to Amazon shareholders, Jeff Bezos claimed that skills are overrated and have less to do with Amazon’s success than do high standards. He notes that leaders bring more value by being able to identify what technical skills that someone on the team must have, and they must know what high level expertise and performance look like, but they don’t need to be the source of technical competence themselves.
In today’s hyper-change, complex, volatile, and ambiguous operating environments, organizations succeed not because leaders “drive activity” or are technical experts. They succeed when they maximize human capital. When that human capital functions collectively, driven to achieve high standards, the effect is no longer linear, it’s geometric.
Leaders that support an entrepreneurial spirit, collegiality, risk-taking, innovation and accountability achieve the greatest results. This comes from effective people leadership and it is critical because, as research at Gallup notes, employee engagement drives discretionary effort, which is what moves the needle. As Jeff Bezos described in the same letter to shareholders, much of the success at Amazon has come from “the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching.” The opposite, disengagement, is not just less effective, it’s actually damaging to performance and to the organization as a whole.
Importantly, the most successful leaders today are successful because, through their ability to connect with and motivate people, they affect organizational culture. It is culture, by the way, not rules or incentives or processes that drives human behavior over time. As Bezos further notes, “A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company.” Similar values for risk taking without penalty, working for the good of the whole, transparency, wellbeing in the workplace, etc. not only support success, but sustainability—and building supportive culture is one of the most important things any leader can do—for the organization and for him or herself.
On the contrary, as noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Whereas competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity, incompetent ones result in anxious, alienated workers who practice counterproductive work behaviors and spread toxicity throughout the firm.” What is interesting about the HBR research, and that conducted by Gallup and others, is that competent leaders who bring positive impact to their organizations in today’s environment almost uniformly do so via people leadership skills rather than technical skills. Relatedly, they manifest high levels of self-awareness, emotional intelligence and vulnerability. The reason these qualities have become so much more powerful than technical skills relative to leadership “competence,” is because, in most cases, what a leader can accomplish with her or his own technical abilities is profoundly limited compared to what engaged and empowered employees can accomplish collectively across an entire organization. This is common sense, but organizations continue to promote and hire “leaders” who are not only not additive, but are detrimental to those same organizations because they confuse confidence with competence. In fact, as noted in the same HBR article cited above, “our human tendency [is] to equate hubris and arrogance to talent.” That tendency is probably the most prevalent reason that so many organizations continue to be headed by ineffective leaders who alienate employees and compromise the human capital at their disposal.
I have had a front row seat to many hiring and promotion mistakes, if not disasters, in which organizations have failed to choose candidates that were demonstrably better than the ones hired or promoted. Why is that? Because despite the ability to use the right words to describe the leaders they need, hiring managers, committees, and boards are broadly psychologically unable to align their gut level decisions with their intellectual process. In fact, organizations often hire people because they fail to display the traits that make leaders effective. Read that last sentence again. In other words, even if we intellectually know that traits such as humility, vulnerability, and integrity are at the core of powerful people leadership, given a choice, we generally pass on those candidates and hire ones who display confidence, or even narcissism, “executive” (authoritarian) decision making, and can demonstrate technical skill in areas of significance to the organization’s business. Or, even more simply, we just hire people who look and feel familiar. We are seduced by individuals who we believe “get things done,” rather than those who empower entire organizations to get things done. And we are all the poorer for it.