Although HR is a key organizational function, it is still vastly underutilized in most organizations, especially when it comes to selecting leaders. Competent leadership is crucial for a company’s success. Yet, only 44% of HR professionals report having formal processes for identifying employees with leadership potential. Even when organizations do have a formal process for identifying and developing high potential employees, it is often haphazard and riddled with organizational politics. HR is often either relegated to processing benefits paperwork or left out of the process completely. It’s time for HR to lead the charge and shape the way their organizations select leaders, but to do that, HR must first reshape the way it thinks about leadership.
First, HR professionals tend to focus too much on leadership emergence, and too little on effectiveness. Their views of what it takes to be a great leader are clouded by their inability to distinguish between individuals who get to be in charge, and those who actually should. Because they have witnessed so many cases of leaders who are moody, greedy, and narcissistic, they assume that those are psychological requirements, or preconditions, for leadership. Likewise, given that the manifestation of relevant leadership qualities, such as altruism, modesty, and competence rather than confidence, is rather uncommon, they undermine the importance of those traits for leadership effectiveness.
Second, most HR professionals are only able to judge leadership capacity retrospectively. That is, they may at best compare the performance of different leaders or admire someone’s track record. However, in the war for talent the key weapon is the ability to evaluate someone’s potential, which concerns their future talent for someone, in particular leadership. Unfortunately, when companies have in place formal programs for identifying high potential individuals these are generally based on arbitrary criteria and their implementation is typically obstructed by organizational politics. In fact, the existence of a formal hi-po program often facilitates the promotion of employees who are politically savvy and Machiavellian, at the expense of those with true talent for leadership. In a logical world, the very goal of hi-po programs should be the opposite, that is, to stop mischievous self-promoters and promote visionary team players. There are really only three reliable data points to predict someone’s ability to lead in the future: the first is their past leadership performance; the second is how the person is evaluated by their peers, such as in 360-surveys; and the third is the person’s personality profile, including their competencies, values, and generic disposition, because they will tend to predict 360’s, which will in turn predict leadership performance.
Third, even when HR professionals are capable of truly understanding leadership – not just theoretically, but also in practice – they will often struggle to sell their views to colleagues, and particularly managers. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that almost everyone has an opinion on leadership, at least if we defined it broadly as “who should be in charge”. And regardless of whether they are right or wrong, they will feel very passionate and certain about them. The second is that HR professionals – and this includes managers, of course – have to fight for their own survival. This means that when confronted with a situation in which they can either promote their manager’s agenda or push for what they consider best for the organization, they will often favor the former over the latter. There has been much talk in recent years about seeing HR more as a business partner than a bureaucratic function, but that is wishful thinking at best, and empty or cynical rhetoric at worst.
For HR to move the leadership conversation forward, it needs to bring to the table a new view of leadership. The above table highlights the key aspects of this view, and how they contrast with the common HR view. As shown, in the common view of leadership, leadership is defined by virtue of one’s position. In other words, if the person is in charge, he or she must be a leader. In our view, leadership should be defined as the ability to build a high-performing team and inspire individuals to work unselfishly to attain a common goal. In the common HR view, leadership is a privilege of a few, selected for charm or charisma, and power is conferred by the leader’s title. In our view, leadership should be a resource for the group, and leaders should be selected for their humility and competence; furthermore, power is granted or legitimized by the leaders’ followers. In the common HR view, a leader’s success is determined by whether he or she pleases their superiors and shareholders. In our view, since leaders should focus on their subordinates and the welfare of their teams, leaders’ success should be judged by the engagement and performance of their followers. Moreover, leaders’ should channel their ambition, not into outperforming individual rivals in the team or organization, but rival teams and organizations – the ambition of good leaders is the success of subordinates, the ambition of bad leaders is their own success, even if it comes at the expense of subordinates’ and the organization’s success.
Importantly, our view also differs from the mainstream HR position because we don’t believe that competent leadership is the norm. Consider that the average tenure for a Fortune 500 CEO is around 4 years, that most employees around the world are not engaged at work, which, in the US, could cost the economy $300 billion. In contrast, our view is that good leadership is an exception and the result of carefully designed, evidence-based, programs that select for true potential and continuously develop that potential. Training is absolutely essential, even when leaders have been adequately selected. And every developmental or coaching intervention must start with an accurate diagnostic and feedback.
In short, HR professionals must help organizations to recognize the real pillars of good leadership. If this can be achieved, companies will stop spending billions of dollars grooming the wrong candidates. By educating their own leaders and reframing organizations’ views on leadership, HR will play a critical role in identifying and nurturing top leadership talent, and winning the war for talent.