Measuring Leadership Competence–The Coin Toss

November 15, 2015 by Ken Nowack

“Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”

Peter Drucker

There is no debating that leaders make a difference on the retention, productivity and health of talent today.

Our own research, using a proprietary management practices index used in employee engagement surveys in diverse industries, indicates that interpersonally competent leaders do a better job of holding on to high potential talent, increasing engagement and creating psychologically healthy workplaces1.

It’s no surprise that talent in all types of organizations overwhelmingly report that one of the worst aspects of one’s job is typically his/her boss (approximately 75% rate bosses as the number one cause of work stress). Survey after survey worldwide, including our own, continues to indicate that leaders make a difference2.

Leadership 2015

One expert on leadership who has hypothesized the level of managerial incompetence is psychologist Robert Hogan. He suggests that the “base rate” of managerial incompetence in corporations can range from 30% to 75%, with recent studies suggesting that the average is probably closer to 50%3. Even when two people claim to “love each other” relationships over time may not turn out as expected. In fact the average per capital divorce rate in the US today isn’t too far off from 50%–organizations may not exactly be characterized as families but they certainly are teams that bring people together for a common vision and desired outcomes. So, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that not only do leaders possess different personalities, interests, values, motives and skills but some are pre-wired to possess “followership” capabilities.

Leadership isn’t a profession—it’s not like other licensed occupations that attempt to provide some degree of training, certification and protection of a public they serve. Academic degrees and programs don’t necessarily ensure that leaders learn or that they actually transfer knowledge and skills back to work (besides, how many people agree that most academic degrees today should come with expiration dates?).

Our best “human handicapping” pre-employment selection methods all seem to be stronger at actually predicting who are more likely to fail than those who are likely to succeed (most validated assessments used today to select leaders typically correlate with diverse performance and satisfaction outcomes in the range of .30 to .40). So finding good leaders is probably a lot of “art” and to a lesser extent a “science” as we know it today.

If we are to believe the growing research in the multiple intelligence arena, “learning agility” and “interpersonal competence” might have some pretty strong depositional aspects that are resistant to coaching, training and formal education (e.g., the effect sizes in 360 feedback behavior change research are quite small suggesting what we know intuitively—zebras don’t easily change their stripes). OK, I know some of my colleagues who are pretty talented psychologists, coaches, trainers and OD practitioners will have at least one or more real good “success stories” to bring up. But, those success stories seem to be the exception and not the rule.

I’m grateful that Robert Hogan and Robert Kaiser didn’t actually list names of some of the incompetent leaders they suggest are out there in high numbers—I’m sure my name would have been found on that one.

So, toss a coin and let’s say “heads” means you are a competent leader and “tails” means you are not.  It appears that the statistics behind coin tossing may be a fairly accurate measure of the state of leadership competence today in most organizations….Be well….

  1. Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference. HR Trends, 17, 40-42. []
  2. Nowack, K. (2009). The Neurobiology of Leadership: Why Women Lead Differently Than Men. ESCI-UPF Negocios Internacionales, Paper presented at the Life09 I Congerso Internacional de Liderazgo Femenino, Barcelona, Spain []
  3. Hogan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9, 169-180. []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Selection

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  • Good post Ken. I would agree that it is certainly more of an art. We have to look at what people are rather than what they do. It speaks to the need for humility and teachability. It’s those “followership” capabilities that end up making them better leaders.

    “Even when two people claim to ‘love each other’ relationships over time may not turn out as expected.” What you say is cautionary. Too often leaders start off understanding their role and then get caught up in their position. The focus shifts from others to the self. And when that happens, the relationship between leaders and followers becomes dysfunctional at best.

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