Assessing Leadership Potential

Hey, I would rather be writing about Presence instead of Politics, but this moment in history requires us to be more present in the political process. As a Vietnam Vet, I have a deep fear of where Trump is taking us.

Remember, it was a series of stupid leadership decisions that led to over 250,000 allied military personnel and over one million Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam War—unnecessarily.

Leaders have great potential to do both good and harm.

"Bell telephone magazine" (1922), from Internet Archive Book Images | Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14569933757/ | License: CC0We are currently witnessing the appointment of leaders to the highest governmental offices in the country who have limited potential for effective leadership. As citizens, we have the right to expect appointments to be made thoughtfully and in accordance with the best practices for selecting people with the highest potential to serve the public good. At this point in the process, I don’t see any evidence that the new administration is even remotely considering the most important predictors of success.

Over the course of my career, I helped companies as large as Johnson & Johnson develop systems for assessing leadership potential.

I have also had responsibility for staffing in major corporations. Based on that experience and an extensive review of the literature, I have found that four key factors lead to an accurate assessment of leadership potential: Experience, Education, Learning Agility, and Motivation.

Relevant experience is an important factor for predicting performance. Just because someone has served in a particular role doesn’t guarantee that they will perform well in a similar role, but it is important to know how the game is played. If a person has spent his or her entire career in the private sector, for example, it is unlikely that she will know how to navigate well in the public arena. Strategic insights and emotional intelligence are critical—particularly in the context in which the person is working. In the private sector, positioning and competitive differentiating are important strategic capabilities, but those skills don’t necessarily apply in the public sector. Likewise, knowing how to deal with a Board of Directors does not necessarily translate into how to deal with Congress. Further, financial success in business is not a particularly good predictor for a leadership role in government. Context is important. Experience counts.

Relevant education is also an important factor for predicting performance. Having an Ivy League degree doesn’t guarantee that a person is smarter than everyone else, but a rigorous education does develop analytical skills, cognitive ability, problem solving skills, and competencies for dealing with ambiguity and making accurate, evidence-based decisions. For example, in choosing a leader for the Department of Energy it would be reasonable to select someone who actually knows something about nuclear or renewable energy. Similarly, in picking a leader for Education, one might think that knowing something about public education would help. Education counts.

To me, one of the most important factors in assessing leadership potential is learning agility.

Constantly changing conditions challenge the skills of any leader.

The most effective leaders in any arena tend to be intellectually curious, open-minded, and adaptable.

The world has never been more chaotic, dynamic, or unpredictable.

One never knows what or where the next crisis will be. Our leaders not only need to deal with the on-going challenges of North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Russia, and China, they also will have to respond to random and unpredictable environmental catastrophes like tsunamis, hurricanes, flooding etc. Add to that the more predictable turbulence around civil rights, human rights, women’s rights etc. and you are looking at constant churn. Dealing with these changes and crises require leaders to be highly open, adaptive, and curious. I’m not seeing much evidence of those crucial leadership traits or any real desire to learn in Trump’s appointments. Learning and agility count.

The fourth critical factor is motivation. Fundamentally, the question to ask here is,

“what is this person’s level of commitment to whom?”

Is the person a self-oriented Narcissus who only seeks attention for himself, or is the person truly dedicated to improving the common good? Does the person have a service orientation or is she primarily interested in self-promotion? Motivation is about drive, perseverance, and having a results-orientation. It is about being willing to hold yourself accountable for making the world a better place to live. Trump has never been accountable to anyone.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing a commitment to the common good. The nominee for Secretary of Labor is against raising the minimum wage. The nominee for Secretary of State has dedicated his whole life to improving profits for one of the largest corporations in the world. The pick for HUD sees segregation and racial isolation as a natural act. The nominee for Secretary of Defense, one of the few nominees with real leadership credibility, once said,  “It’s quite fun to shoot them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.” The nominee for the EPA is a climate change denier. It’s appropriate to strongly question the motivations of these people.

I’m seeing a lot of motivation in Trump’s appointments to make the rich richer, but very little motivation to help the poor and middle class increase opportunities. Motivation counts.

So, in my experience assessing leadership potential, I’m not seeing any indication that the selections for the highest posts in the land are based on any of the four key factors for assessing leadership potential. Instead, the appointments are based on

  1. what you did for Trump during the election, and
  2. what you will do to advance the privatization and militarization of our country,
  3. your loyalty to Trump,
  4. your conservative credentials,
  5. your pro-business orientation,
  6. your anti-regulation bias, and
  7. how well Ivanka and Jared like you.

Essentially, Trump is trying to render the public sector irrelevant. He may succeed in killing the “beast,” but he is going to kill who we are in the process.

So where is the hope here? I think we need to not only look back in history but also take a long-term view of the future. Hitler was the most morally reprehensible leader the world has ever seen, and yet 70 years after his death and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Angela Merkel has taken the moral high ground on immigration and Germany has one of the strongest economies in the world with the broadest protections for worker rights. While America can’t claim moral superiority to the rest of the world (Read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead or inquire about the CIA role in Latin America for starters), we have on several occasions stepped up to do the right thing: World War II, Civil Rights, Roe vs. Wade, Brown vs. Board of Education, etc.

We are currently in a dark period resulting from dark forces (Trump himself, Comey, Putin, racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy, and ignorance). But I’m seeing sparks of resistance and revolt, and I’m hoping Trump’s colossally stupid selection decisions will wake us up and create a new energy for positive change.

In the midst of this darkness, we all need to take responsibility for growing whatever light we can find within ourselves and in the people we love.

And we all need to get serious about developing our own leadership potential. Here’s what getting serious looks like: gaining more experience in community organizing; being more rigorous about checking the facts and educating ourselves about the issues; being motivated to make a difference in people’s lives; learning how to respond to changing conditions and adapting to the new requirements for activism in our lives. If we improve our own leadership potential, perhaps we can mitigate the potential for disaster in the next four years and prepare the groundwork for good in the future.

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RonnyDonny
Guest
RonnyDonny

Great post Ricky, but not good for my mood level! Here’s hoping “we” can somehow grow and learn from this, and overcome all of this to get to a better place eventually! Merry Christmas my brother to you and yours-RonnyDonny

Artie Egendorf, PhD
Guest

A pro speaks. Bravo. Sharing.

Jennifer
Guest
Jennifer

Thank you, Rick. Another day of disbelief is made more hopeful by your sage advice. I appreciate you.

Betsey
Guest
Betsey

I feel as though some force has bashed two cymbals together to wake up the sleeping and complacent liberal Dems. We need leaders, vision, and a clear path forward with many many people putting their energy, imagination and wisdom to the task of defeating the evil that has befallen us! The long sleep is over! I am feeling very much awake!!!

Dan Strong
Guest
Dan Strong

I believe that his conflicts of interests will make impossible to remain in leadership. With all of his business in the private secto the country needs to make a choice. So far his few decisions have all benefited him and his cronies.

Dottie Brienza
Guest
Dottie Brienza

Good analysis Rick and well proven approach for assessing leadership potential. Unfortunately, I think many things that are already well proven are being completely discounted under this administration. A friend once told me “Don’t dance with crazy”. It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received. There is no point in being rational or logical with someone who is mentally unbalanced. Instead we must put pressure on all other elected officials to do the right thing, and work around #45. Our government and society is bigger than the one nut at the top.

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