Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Predictive Nature of Leadership (II)

See Part I below

So, what else to look into or look for? When I was doing those interviews, I would ask about personal and professional aspirations. We would also discuss that person’s vision of his/her environment. How does s/he see the world around him/her? Asking about aspirations was a good way to check for a combination of realism and ambition, which I consider to be a telling leadership trait. The thing with the vision of one’s world is that it gives a sense of how self-aware the person is and also how broad or narrow his/her universe is. I find it quite fascinating to hear how someone defines his/her universe – where to place boundaries? Should those be geographic, sectoral, topical, or generational? Self-awareness is indeed an important leadership trait and I am also biased towards breadth (not having a narrow definition of one’s world) – actually for that matter, a definition that is different (someone who is all about cars for example, and community of car aficionados, new technology around cars, etc.) would strike me as interesting as well.

I also found that the few that I interviewed or with whom I worked like Brian and Abby (whose organizations I discussed in earlier posts) who were clearly off the charts had a lot of charisma, and in particular had just incredible grace. I am not sure whether grace is an innate trait and I know it is certainly not a requirement for leadership, but seeing those young folks show so much grace I knew right away they would go do great things.

I probably did not do enough of those interviews nor have I spent enough time thinking about this question of whether and how leadership can be predicted - but I always felt that this is more an art than a science. Think about the various leadership traits or ingredients that I have mentioned. It would be nice to look for a combination but what’s the minimum threshold for each of them – or is there a minimum overall level to target? This does not seem much practical.

And intuition played a role too, and not an insignificant one. Again, this is related to my own bias. While knowing that I am quite analytical I am also quite intuitive and I trust my instincts. I saw this at play when I was interviewing folks and I would be convinced that those guys would be community leaders. What community leadership means essentially is that students may play leadership positions on campus but above all, they are outstanding members on campus, always being there to help others and being a resource to their classmates whenever they can.

I had that type of intuition a couple of times. That could seem odd because today for a candidate to convey that s/he is a going to be an outstanding member of his/her community is among the requirements. You know the short program in skating and whatever figures skaters have to do – that’s the same for anything related to community in a business school application and interview. Despite the fact that I heard dozens of times folks telling me that they would be engaged from day one, I knew listening to some of them and observing their body language (the sparkle in their eyes, their excitement when I brought up the subject) that they would very likely be truly outstanding classmates.

The funny thing is that coincidentally after some got admitted I caught a glimpse of them doing exactly that: I saw one of my students helping another student in Finance in her classroom and I also heard about another one who was working hard to help his fellow ex-military classmates to think about possible jobs in the corporate world.

In sum, I don’t have a secret formula for predicting whether young folks can become leaders in their own right. Past leadership experience counts. Personality traits such as humility, self-awareness, ambition, selflessness all matter as well. Those are the ingredients. But we also know that leadership is often expressed in challenging times and thus, the true test may very well come only whenever life throws a curve ball at those folks and they have to step up to the plate and react quickly - without having the time to think about the stuff they learned in school or the good intentions they swore they would have no matter what.

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