How Incompetent Are Leaders Today?

November 7, 2010 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. In fact 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 workplaces ((Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference. HR Trends, 17, 40-42.)).

It’s no surprise that talent in all types of organizations overwhemingly 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 continues to indicate that leaders make a difference including research of our own ((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)).

But just how bad is leadership today?

One expert on leadership who has hypothesized the level of managerial incompetence is University of Tulsa Professor 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%((Hogan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9, 169-180.)). 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 they actually transfer knowledge and skills back to work (besides, how many people agree that most academic degrees today should come with expiration dates?). And, 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 really succeed (we stoically accept that 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.

I cringe when I think of the days I managed others (I apologize profusely to anyone who suffered under me as their boss in the past—isn’t there a statute of limitations around emotional frustration caused in the past by leaders who lack basic supervisory and management skills?). It wasn’t that I was mean spirited, overly controlling or autocratic—I did my best and probably at the time actually believed I was performing pretty well in my leadership role. All I did was lack ability, skill and competence—all the ingredients that likely led to active disengagement and increased stress for many of my staff. All I really wanted was some “feedforward” as Marshall Goldsmith calls it—just some pointed tips, approaches and techniques that would have helped my team perform better as a group and individually.

If we are to believe the growing research in the multiple intelligence arena, it might be that “learning agility” and “interpersonal competence” might have some pretty strong dispositional 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.

Truth be told, I’m not that much better as an executive coach as I was a leader. About 95% of my clients “get” what is creating a challenge for others in the organization. Less than half of them are actually commit to doing things more, less or differently to become more effective. And, less than half of those motivated clients of mine actually maintain any new behavior change over time. It might be me, it might be my clients, it might be the client system but gosh “shaping” leaders is hard work that doesn’t always seem to work (that’s just one reason I am attracted to “pay for outcomes” rather than “pay for process” in coaching engagements aimed at enhancing leadership effectiveness).

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….Be well….

[tags]business, talent management, talent development, leadership, executive development, succession planning, management, engagement, retention, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]

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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  1. Michael J. Spangle says:

    If it is any consolation to you, even the most perfect of leaders/coaches/facillitators (i.e. Jesus) would have been judged as a failure based on the performance of His disciples. Very often, even they didn’t “get” what it was that he was trying to teach them. The only people who seemed to ‘get” what He was trying to say were His enemies, and they wanted Him dead because of it!

    As for the failures in leadership who are out there, I think much of that comes from our cultures obsession with Self and the overweening sense of entitlement that accompanies it. Think of it as someone trying to drive in the passing lane on the interstate with a mirror positioned just inches from their nose. If all you see is Self then you can’t see where you are going. If you can’t see where you are going, then how can you lead others?

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