In times of relative ease and prosperity, poor leadership is an annoyance, but we work around it. We use the positive inertia of the surrounding environment - the overall economy, the industry, the other divisions of the organization - to keep things functioning in spite of our poor leaders. "The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded." We’ll probably even give them credit for the success that the team achieved in spite of them. They were going to claim it anyway - after all, pride is a foundational flaw of a poor leader.
In times of crisis, things fall apart. We don’t have enough positive inertia to keep our momentum - there may even be a massive obstacle on the tracks. So we are more susceptible to derailment by the egos, fears, indecisiveness, and incompetence of poor leaders. Their harmful effects magnify and spread exponentially… sort of like COVID-19. Honestly, sometimes a temporary derailment may be better than staying on the tracks and allowing reverse momentum and negative inertia to take hold.
We see it most clearly in politics. At least - we think we see it. When the economy seems to be working favorably for Mr. Smith, he will accept the absurdity of the elected officials who allegedly serve him. When it isn’t working for him, he may demand a change... And vote for someone else equal and opposite in their absurdity. "They're for sale if you want them."
We see it in organizations as well. At least - we think we see it. When artificially cheap debt, the emotions and luck of Wall Street, the overall economy, and the relative industry are working favorably for boards, CEOs, and Presidents, they will accept many obvious flaws of the leaders who serve under them. When external factors are no longer covering those flaws enough to drive positive results, organizations may make changes... and select new leaders with many obvious flaws... Wait, what?
Why is hiring a new leader a 50/50 proposition? Why can't we figure this out?
Let's look at Mr. Smith again.
1. Mr. Smith overestimates his own leadership abilities.
Mr. Smith is most of us. "We don't need to see his identification." Most of us are average, by definition. Most of us think that we are above-average, which is, by definition, impossible.
Without an accurate assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses (and the humility required to accept that information), Mr. Smith doesn't know what kind of support he needs in order to be successful.
2. Mr. Smith's primary motivation is to avoid pain, not to achieve success.
Based on the wrong information, Mr. Smith hires leaders who make him feel comfortable. "You can go about your business."
Again, Mr. Smith is an average leader. Mr. Smith tends to hire average and below average leaders, and hinder or drive off above-average leaders. Sometimes it is malicious, but usually Mr. Smith isn't even aware that he is doing it. He is weakened by fear and self-doubt, so he needs public recognition to reassure him - to give him fuel to carry on. Mr. Smith is not a bad guy. He's just human.
You are human too. So chances are very good that you don't see yourself in the bullet above. You may even be thinking "I'm glad I'm not Mr. Smith." Let's not debate it - just think about it some - and see if the bullet below sounds familiar.
Mr. Smith looks for leaders who compliment him, rather than leaders who complement him. The difference is based in that letter "I," which is ego.
3. Mr. Smith doesn't recognize that the game is rigged.
Even when Mr. Smith is intentional in trying to make the right hire, even when he has hired the biggest and most reputable search firm that he can't afford, he runs into the massive obstacle we call conventional wisdom - the enemy of independent thought, creativity, and courage. Because we as a society have accepted and reinforced monolithic narratives about the qualities that define a leader, we have a bias towards:
The same personality types and the same primary motivators - only with varying degrees of polish and political savvy.
The same types of work experiences.
The same types of academic backgrounds.
The same types of socio-economic backgrounds.
So Mr. Smith is going to consider and select the candidates who meet or exceed the norms of conventional wisdom, regardless of whether they are the candidates Mr. Smith needs to make his organization better. "These aren't the droids you're looking for."
So what can we do to break this pattern of mediocrity? "Move along." We will examine that in our next post.