Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious

05 Nov 2018. Bob Kaplan

It's always interesting, if humbling, to suddenly notice what's missing in a situation that's utterly familiar to me. All the more so when that thing is totally basic and fairly cries out for attention. 

I recently had such an experience, and it prompted me to survey a small number of leaders, asking only one question: What does it mean to lead?

You might take a moment to jot down your own answer.

Here are several representative answers. Can you see what's not there?

Creates a vision, rallies people to it, and executes

  • Motivates people to perform beyond their imagined capabilities
  • Not only cares about people but actively takes care of them
  • Can work with the team, handle difficult situations, and consistently get results
  • Shows people the way and makes sure they get there, letting them rise to their level while keeping his/her ego in check (but not too much)

Here's another set of views on the subject, these drawn from an Inc. article aptly entitled, "What Is a Leader?" 

Again, what feature of leading has been left out? (By the way, it's the same thing.) 

  • My definition of a leader... is a man who can persuade people to do what they don't want to do, or do what they're too lazy to do, and like it.  Harry S. Truman
  • Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.  Steve Jobs
  • A leader is a dealer in hope.  Napoleon Bonaparte
  • The art of leadership is saying no. It is very easy to say yes.  Tony Blair
  • Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.  George Patton

So, after that build-up, what's missing? Just this: putting the right people on the team in the first place. The quality of the players. The critical factor of deciding who is led, not just how they're led. 

To lead amounts to just two things—fielding a strong team and managing that team. Or, if you prefer, the managing part can be subdivided into planning and executing. Either way, picking people features prominently as one of the leader's top two or three responsibilities.

Even a literary biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell writing "The Life of Charlotte Bronte" in the 1850s, knew the high importance to "administration" of player quality:

"The prime element in good administration is seeking out thoroughly competent persons…."

In the set of Inc.‎ answers Admiral Chester Nimitz made much the same point: 

"Leadership consists of picking good people and helping them do their best."

But of the 100 Inc. responses, his was one of only ‎three that spoke to selection. 

"It's weird,” a senior HR colleague who's seen it all told me, “that effective selection isn't on people's lists of leadership attributes.”

What does the omission signify? Maybe it's just that leaders, knowing full well that staffing is part of the job, park it in a separate mental compartment‎. Maybe it's nothing more than that.

But I doubt it. It looks to me like staffing, in many leaders' minds, is a need-to-do, but not a screaming must-do. Important, but not all-important, not a sine qua non of leading.  

Said another veteran HR leader: "The identification and selection of the right talent should be on the top of the list but it's often not." A collective blind spot? Seems like it. As a CEO reports, "Too often we focus on strategy and execution while minimizing the damage done from having the wrong players on the team. I've lived through that a couple of times. Having the right people in the right roles—there's no comparison."

In the white-hot contest for the leader's time, attention and concerted effort, staffing—both the picking and the pruning of talent—can easily lose out. And then what? Leaders compromise on talent, they settle for less. 

What, then, wins out? 

Other demands of the job, for one thing. The first HR colleague is shocked. "Astounding, really, when you clearly see management spend ten times more energy in deciding whether to purchase a million-dollar piece of equipment than on a talent decision that might produce, over the long term, a hundred times the value."

For another thing, cost—the expense of filling a position. Apart from hard budgetary constraints, leaders can be led astray by the lure of saving 20 percent on a hire and somehow not mind passing up on the top candidate.

Last but not least, the leader's ever-so-personal needs—out-of-proportion self-concern. 

For fear of being shown up, leaders gravitate away from putting star-quality people on their team. From an aversion to being challenged or even flat-out opposed leaders avoid appointing strong-minded, outspoken types‎.

Pruning talent, not just picking it, is also degraded by misplaced personal needs. Inheriting weak people, leaders dutifully, unthinkingly, meekly accept the hand dealt to them. Or flattering themselves they're great developers of people, leaders are way too slow to make tough decisions. 

What's in it for leaders to staff supremely well?

  • Their job is made easier—no need to supervise closely or pick up the slack. They're spared all that frustration and worry. 
  • Strong players actually make the leader stronger, no matter how much he or she personally bring.
  • Best of all, leaders are more likely to prevail against stiff challenges—and leave the place in good hands.

In life, after all, better is always preferred to worse. Kids choosing up sides to play a team sport always take the strongest players first. It's an inbred tropism, just the way plants are programmed to bend toward the sun. 

The instinct to pick strong players‎, so true to nature‎, so critical to leading successfully, is so easy to lose sight of—so easy for it to get lost in the shuffle. Don't let that happen to you.