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Qualities of Leadership Excellence

Dr. Siddall is a Psychologist with over 30 years of experience in clinical and forensic psychology as a clinician, educator and consultant.

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This article is essential for anyone charged with hiring candidates for leadership positions. Selecting the right person for the job can mean the difference between success, failure, or even disaster.

Avoiding Costly Hiring Errors

It can be very costly to select a leadership candidate that has not been appropriately vetted. I have witnessed well meaning search committees and professional recruiters make hiring errors that embroiled them in a variety of complex legal problems that significantly hurt the organization's bottom line. Selecting the wrong candidate can result in incompetent leadership that demoralizes the staff and creates a toxic work environment. Even more serious, are the charismatic candidates who are initially charming and impressive but turn out to be self centered or amoral. These individuals can do great harm by engaging in unethical or illegal activity such as fraud, blackmail, and theft.

Example 1: All that Glitters

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Lynn was a middle aged, career woman who applied for a position as Chief Financial Officer at a prestigious medical group located in a major metropolitan area in the midwest. Her resume listed a 15 year work history as an accountant and financial officer for several mid size hospitals. She graduated with honors from an ivy league school where she had majored in business and accounting. She submitted outstanding personal references from employers and business associates as addenda to her resume. In person she made a very favorable impression on the members of the recruitment committee. She was neatly dressed in business attire, articulate, outgoing, friendly, and well versed in the field of financial management. She so impressed the screening committee that soon after the initial interview she was offered the job which she accepted. She was considered so ideally qualified that some of the usual assessment was waived and only a superficial background check was conducted. As you might have assumed, this cursory assessment did not reveal any problematic personal or professional issues and the results were accepted as further proof of her suitability for employment.

Fourteen months into her tenure, a financial discrepancy was discovered by one of the staff accountants. An outside audit and subsequent police investigation revealed that Lynn had engineered a complex accounting scheme to cover up embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars using fraudulent receipts from vendors and consultants. When her background was finally subjected to careful scrutiny it was discovered that Lynn was using a stolen identity and most of her resume had been manufactured. In fact, she had embezzled large amounts of money from two previous employers who had fired her. Both of her prior employers settled with her attorneys for partial restitution allowing her to avoid prosecution and continue her criminal career. It wasn’t until this third offense that she was finally convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

Example 2: Self-made Man

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Ray was a 38 year old applicant for the position of city manager with a midwestern city with a population of 250,000 residents. He grew up in the South as one of four sons of a sharecropper. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Army where he completed his high school requirements and an Associates Degree in business. Due to his leadership ability and excellent grades he was selected to attend officer’s training school where he earned a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Subsequently, he specialized in operations management and assumed leadership positions managing military installations. He moved rapidly through the ranks and received an honorable discharge with the rank of Captain after serving eight years. In civilian life he worked as manager in various departments in city government and eventually became city manager for several small and medium sized municipalities.

After applying for the current position, he completed a comprehensive evaluation. He impressed the selection committee with his intelligence, drive, interpersonal skill, and excellent work record. Psychological testing, interviewing and his background investigation showed him to be well adjusted, conscientious, and trustworthy. He was hired, completed his probationary period, and continues to be an outstanding city manager five years later.

Leadership evaluation

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A comprehensive employee evaluation is essential in order to select the most suitable leadership candidate and to rule out the unqualified. A thorough evaluation will also uncover the frauds, scammers and swindlers before they can harm your business.

The evaluation process typically includes interviews, testing, reference checks, and a background investigation. The background research explores the candidates work history, personal and professional references, credit history, and criminal record. Many employers also utilize polygraph exams to evaluate honesty and drug testing to rule out substance abuse. The evaluation takes place over a series of sessions and may continue into a probationary period. The length of the assessment process depends on the candidates level of employment. Typically, high level management positions with the most responsibility, and highest compensation, pose the greatest liability and require the most in depth evaluations.

Impression Management

Keep in mind that candidates typically approach the assessment process attempting to foster a positive impression. Therefore it is imperative to evaluate the validity of the assessment and the degree of impression management employed by the candidate. This is typically determined by a combination of psychometric test results and the interviewer's impression. Responses that deviate significantly from the norm may invalidate the results or require re-evaluation.

Commercial Assessment Tools

Employers are often induced to utilize professionally marketed assessment tools that promise a simple and cost effective method for selecting good hires. However, experience teaches that these testing programs are not nearly as accurate as thorough background checks and direct observations of target work behaviors. The rule for selecting excellent leaders is to focus on the actual behavior required by the job. The more removed the assessment process is from the target behavior, the less valid are the resulting conclusions and recommendations. The best assessments are based on research which has identified the core characteristics of effective leaders.

Leadership research

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The foremost pioneer in the field of leadership scholarship was Warren G. Bennis who was Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. He wrote the classic textbook On Becoming a Leader in 1989. Professor Bennis summed up the field of leadership research by stating “ Effective leaders tend to be inspirational, visionary, and serve as positive role models for their followers. But the very best leaders also care sincerely about their followers” He stressed that “the essential ingredient of leadership is trust which requires constancy, congruency, reliability and integrity.”

Five Essential Leadership Characteristics

My own experience evaluating and advising employers in business, industry, and law enforcement underscored the importance of identifying five essential leadership characteristics for each candidate including:

  1. Competence: business and Interpersonal acumen.
  2. Conscientiousness: trust, honesty, ethical morality
  3. Work ethic: focus, organization, vision
  4. Role modelling: inspirational mentoring and self regulation
  5. Communication: ability to establish and maintain relationships

Candidates with these characteristics possess both business and interpersonal skills. They are honest, ethical, and operate from a firmly grounded moral compass. Their work ethic is focused and organized with the vision of the organization clearly in mind. They energize their employees by inspirational mentoring and ability to be calm and measured even in stressful circumstances. They can be firm but always remain fair. They are supportive and respectful communicators who have the ability to establish and maintain relationships with superiors and their staff members.

Toxic Traits

In contrast to healthy leaders characteristics, is is vitally important to rule out toxic traits including:

  1. Incompetence: lacking business and Interpersonal acumen
  2. Dishonesty: unethical/ immoral/ self promoter
  3. Disorganization: unfocused, impulsive, lacking stewardship
  4. Non-supportive supervision: reinforces allegiance over honesty
  5. Abusive communication: bullying, harassment, violates boundaries

Initially, these candidates can create a positive impression. Superficially they may appear attractive, charismatic, and charming. However, careful vetting is the only proven way to reveal a candidate's true nature. If a candidate with toxic traits does not get identified during the evaluation process and gets hired problems soon emerge. These individuals may simply be incompetent and lack the business or interpersonal skills to lead an organization. Time may reveal them to be dishonest, deceitful, unethical or immoral. They tend to be self promoters who surround themselves with sycophants and enablers. Their work remains unfinished, they blame others for their shortcomings, and use the strategy of deny, blame, and counter attack when confronted.

Leadership scorecard

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A leadership scorecard is an impressionistic “grade” summary of the candidates performance on each leadership characteristic after the comprehensive evaluation has been completed. The grade summary combines subjective and objective data such as observations, test data, interview answers, and background information. It is a useful practice to rate each of the five characteristics of healthy leadership on a grading scale from A to F. Clearly the best candidate will achieve the highest rating from the evaluation team and should rate at the A- grade end of the scale. Each candidate should also be carefully reviewed for the presence of toxic characteristics. No candidate under serious consideration should exhibit any of these negative characteristics.

Summary

Selecting the right person for the job can mean the difference between success, failure, or even disaster. A comprehensive employee evaluation is essential in order to select the most suitable leadership candidate and to rule out the unqualified.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 James W Siddall

Comments

James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on July 23, 2020:

Thank you for your helpful feedback. I am glad you found the article useful in your work!

Nicole on July 22, 2020:

An outstanding article full of relatable examples and practical guidance. The acquisition of quality talent is a critical priority. Your advice on how mitigate bias in this process and back decisions with both subjective and objective data that are consistently applied to all candidates is spot on.