Monday, November 15, 2010

Leadership in an empty room

@ruskin147 asks "Can brain scans tell us what makes a leader? And can a psychometric test really prove that I have zero leadership skills?"

Rory Cellan-Jones, who is the BBC technology correspondent, reports on an ongoing study of the management brain at Reading University (incorporating Henley Business School) [BBC News 14 November 2010]. The researchers are doing a brain scan of a successful local businessman, Sir John Madejski, known for buying Reading Football Club as well as endowing a Centre for Reputation at Henley Business School. (Among other things, the researchers may discover what might motivate Sir John to give more money to the University. Has the ethics committee been consulted?)

Perhaps a brain scan in a laboratory may tell us something about the decision-making style of the subject, but the relationship between decision-making and leadership is an indirect one. If brain scans were going to tell us anything directly useful about Sir John's leadership abilities, we'd need to scan his brain while he was chairing a meeting. Or even better, scan the brains of the other people in the meeting, to measure how much of their attention and respect he commanded.

In his piece, Rory also talks about psychometric testing, which of course suffers from the same limitation - that it provides an assessment of an individual away from a specific organizational context. Of course such exercises may yield indirect clues about how an individual might perform in a given context, but such clues would have to be very carefully interpreted.

A bureaucratic approach to people management might define a fixed profile of leadership skills, including personality traits as well as cognitive abilities, and then attempt to recruit or promote people who fit this profile, as well as facilitating the development of these skills in junior staff. Furthermore, a cookbook approach to team-building and organizational development might have a standard team template, defining the combination of complementary profiles required for a successful team (cf Belbin).

In contrast, a systemic approach to people management would look at how people of diverse abilities and styles can contribute to the emergent leadership and collective intelligence in a complex organization. A lot of attention in the management literature is devoted to charismatic leadership, but the real leaders are those who bring out leadership in other people, whose organizations are full of leaders, in other words people at all levels trying to make a difference.

We get some clues about the paradoxes of leadership by looking at the extraordinary range of personality types who have occupied the White House, Downing Street, Elisee Palace and the Kremlin. Some weighed down by too much understanding of the complexities of the real world, some apparently untroubled by knowledge. Some devious manipulators, some obsessive visionaries, and some who gave the impression of having landed in the job by historical accident. No fixed profile there.

If we want to appreciate Sir John Madejski's leadership skills, we'd need to look at several things in addition to his decision-making style. What does he pay attention to in his organization and environment, how does he make sense of new and emerging stuff, how well does he learn from his mistakes, and above all how does he communicate his insights and vision and energy and enthusiasm to the rest of the organization. In my Organizational Intelligence Primer, I ask some of these questions in relation to Bill Gates and his famous Internet memo; I wonder what a brain scan or psychometric test would tell us about Bill Gates and his leadership style?

See also David Millward, What goes on inside Sir John Madejski's head? (Get Reading, 19 November 2010)

Minor updates 16 December 2012

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