Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Predictive Nature of Leadership (I)

[This is the first of two installments.]

When I was doing business school admissions work, one of the big questions that I grappled with was how to tell if a candidate was going to be a future leader. Leadership potential is a key component of any successful business school graduate, so it is legitimate that it would constitute one of the main criteria for admission into business school.

Looking for evidence of past leadership would seem the first thing to do when considering the potential of a candidate – even though the track record of any 25-year old can be slim and also, like in the stock market, past performance does not help predict future one…

For those educated in the US, extracurricular activities give them an opportunity to take on leadership positions in their teen years (e.g. captain of a sports team, class leadership position in high school) and then in college. Moreover, the notion of leadership is one that is understood, well developed, and valued in this country whereas in others – and I am thinking of Europe and Latin America which are regions I know a bit – it is either considered fuzzy (what does leadership mean exactly?) or even despicable in some more egalitarian societies (if someone leads, others will have to follow – but aren’t we all equal?).

In my reflections and discussions with my colleagues about leadership, the very nature of leadership was addressed. What dos it mean to be a leader and how can one lead? The stereotypical nature of the “quarterback leader”, i.e. charismatic figure (often a man) who inspires and awes his colleagues and gets them to work like dogs and do anything they can to please him and reach the organization’s goals, is far from reflecting the full range of what leadership is or should be. Other forms of leadership, such as thought leadership (which is about producing breakthrough concepts rather than leading others) or quiet leadership (which characterizes a more subdued management style), are also now considered legitimate.

However, broadening the definition of leadership does not fundamentally change the question of predicting whether anyone will be a leader. Past evidence does matter. Exposure to leadership positions is valuable because it will guarantee that the person will have learned some skills from that experience, however easy or difficult, successful or tedious. I think it does say something about a young person’s motivation as well even though a lot of young folks seek those leadership positions as “resume builders” because they know that higher education institutions or employers will be looking for those experiences when scanning resumes or going through applications.

So, what else to look into or look for?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject… Thanks!!

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