“Why do you want to be Prime Minister?”
“Because I think I’d be good at it...”
Skills over character?
Many of us have encountered folk who sense that the best of their skills is in a position of leadership. They consequently feel they deserve such a post. Leaderships is envisaged as inheritance, a birth right of sorts.
This sort of candidate makes us nervous. An intuition that leadership fits you best is often based on skills and experience: strategic thinking, charisma, expertise in a particular field or opportunities enjoyed in the past – far less often is it based on character.
There is something undeniably pompous about this train of logic. No one has an automatic right to leadership, and often those who seek it most energetically are the most unfit for the posts they pursue. Such leaders often cling to their positions long after they ought to have handed over and are more prone to resist accountability and oversight.
An alternative model
We believe in a model of leadership that privileges character over skills. That’s not to say skills are unimportant, but they should always be secondary. The strongest candidates according to this character-oriented model often exhibit a level of reluctance or unease about the prospect of assuming a position of leadership – it doesn’t fit them like a glove, but is worn with a degree of discomfort.
Here are some things to look out for in candidates when thinking along these lines:
A wariness of power: leaders who don’t seek or cling to authority are far more likely to see their role in terms of service of those around them rather than as a chance to consolidate and protect their own position.
Humble self-assessment: a sense that others may be better suited to the role means that a reluctant leader is far more likely to have a keen view of their own weaknesses, and conversely the strengths of those around them. They will command more respect with colleagues as a result and will naturally lead through more collaborative and consensus-driven methods.
Teachability: Consequently, such a leader is far more likely to grow as they will invite feedback and development from others. They are likely to respond to failure or mistakes more positively and this will massively benefit the whole organisation, making governance a far more rewarding and effective process.
Values-based motivation: at heart, a reluctant leader is more likely to care most about the overall success of an organisation and the values or mission it represents. They are far more likely to step aside to allow a new leader to take over at the right time, and their judgement is less likely to be clouded by ambition or prestige.
Contentment: often, the best candidates don’t apply for new jobs or do so reluctantly at the encouragement of a friend or search professional because they are content in their current post. Sometimes caution should be exercised over candidates who clearly want a position very badly.
A non-competitive approach: Remarkably, some of the best candidates we encounter recommend others for the same job that they themselves are exploring. This seems almost absurd if you assess careers purely according to progression, but makes perfect sense if you want someone who cares more about the mission of the organisation than their own success.
A-typical profiles: This perspective opens the door for a younger pool of talent, or those whose path to leadership has not been linear or direct. Reluctant leaders lay down their power without fear, so may not currently be in leadership. They should also be open to considering positions that don’t necessarily look like the most obvious choice, so be ready to consider CVs that don’t necessarily fit your original expectations.
A final word
Candidates of this sort are secure enough not to need increased status or power and will often take careful encouragement or persuasion to consider taking on a new role. As a search firm, we always seek to encourage such candidates through extended personal relationships and informal discussion. You will need to adopt such an approach to ensure the highest chance of recruiting such folk!
This piece was written by Jonathan, one of the consultants on our team at Carnelian.
Other posts by Jonathan include:
Tides of Change: Recruiting in Transition Period
Gentleness in Leadership: A Non-Negotiable
Interviews: Getting Them Right (Part2)
Interviews: Getting Them Right (Part 1)