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Using Psychology to Decide Who Will Lead

How to stop depraved charlatans from destroying organizations.

Key points

  • Organizations should use data, not single opinions, when choosing a leader.
  • Team surveys and organizational-level surveys are helpful tools for organizations to consider.
  • Companies can also harness the power of AI to find hidden talent.
Source: wildpixel/iStock

Human history is the history of good and bad leadership. From Alexander the Great’s conquests to the formation of the United Nations, to the transformation of Microsoft by Satya Nadella, leadership determines the fate of human groups and will no doubt shape the future of humanity.

That said, the mind is extraordinarily flawed when it comes to selecting moral and effective leaders. Consider country leaders such as Mussolini, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Mao Zedong, as well as organizational leaders like Adam Neumann (WeWork), Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), and the cast and crew from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Why do we select leaders that cause widespread misery to powerless followers? Or, less dramatically, are simply ineffective at creating healthy and productive cultures?

The same reason that you’re afraid of spiders but perfectly fine going 80 miles per hour down the highway. We are living with an archaic brain that evolved to select leaders that could defeat the enemy on the other side of the river—not lead through uncertainty and complexity in the 21st century.

Our old psychology is even inherent in succession planning practices, where organizations decide who should lead next. One of the worst (and most common) practices, for instance, is current managers nominating star players on their team for promotion.

The first problem with this is that human intuition is deeply flawed. Organizations should use data, not single opinions, especially considering we’re operating with an archaic brain and traveling at lightning speeds into a complex future. It is worth noting that human perspectives can be useful if they are part of qualitative data collection whereby multiple perspectives are synthesized into a shared reality, and then cross-validated by quantitative data.

Another problem is that giving managers absolute power reduces openness. There are benefits to hierarchy, such as efficient operations and providing the workforce with security. However, hierarchy reinforces historical discrimination and is often endorsed by authoritarian leaders who silence the majority. The fair identification of leaders starts with deciding that it isn’t right for powerful people to unilaterally decide who should lead based on their intuitions, friendships, and similar-to-me biases.

Further, managers aren’t the ones being led. If you want to know who is good at leadership, then ask the people who are being led (i.e., the leader’s direct reports). Direct reports are the consumers of leadership. Managers observe political skill; direct reports observe leadership.

Finally, power-hungry leaders manage-up more than lead their teams. The skills to get to the top of a large bureaucratic organization, such as political savvy, are different than what it takes to lead. Charisma and managing up gets people noticed by their manager, but these tendencies also correlate with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and the pursuit of power.

So then: How do we counteract our contaminated mindware that sees leadership in dysfunction?

Be data-driven, not political. Organizations are all politics all the time. There is no science in political ideology—just agendas and motivated reasoning. Instead, organizations should develop a cultural norm for using data, just like how enlightenment thinkers challenged human tribalism by insisting on rigorous debate, proof, methods for arriving at truth, and humility. Data and the scientific method are our counter-weapons against bias.

Eliminate manager nominations. High-potential leaders should not be identified by asking a person's manager about their performance. The manager perspective is a valid data point, of course, but it is almost universally overweighted in performance management. Ask the people being led.

Use a team survey. Every consequential human achievement—the Egyptian pyramids, the International Space Station—is the result of large-scale cooperation, not individual performance. Team performance is a function of leadership, assuming the leader has been in the role for enough time to have an impact. Additionally, when organizations evaluate a leader and their team at the same time, they can be developed in tandem and with consideration of each other.

Use organizational-level surveys. Most organizations forget about engagement data when evaluating leaders in the context of succession planning. Yet, engagement data is an excellent starting point for excavating hidden gems, especially if demographic variables were included in the survey. This is because data can be sliced and diced to elucidate areas within the organization that are either performing or struggling, and these areas fall under the purview of a leader. Why is the Chicago office engaged while the San Francisco office disengaged? The answer is likely leadership. Why do people report feeling psychologically safe in EMEIA but not in the Americas? The answer is leadership.

Harness the power of AI. Leadership assessment in organizations hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years. A leader evaluated in the 1980s would recognize today’s methods. Interestingly, though, the assessment industry is being disrupted by machine learning algorithms, gamification, and simulations that are closer to leading in real life than traditional surveys. Organizations that are better at finding hidden talent, especially leadership talent, with predictive assessments will outperform the competition and better deal with the future.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” So, let’s do something about it. Let’s use psychology and data to create a world where organizations promote people into power based on their talent to lead, and nothing else.