Finding The Right Leader

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management, March-April, 2004. pp. 60-61.

Finding The Right Leader

by Michael Maccoby

Published in: Research Technology Management, March-April, 2004. pp. 60-61.

Companies are looking at their leadership needs with the wrong mindset. They are trying to find ideal leaders rather than the right kind of leaders, the kind that fit their needs.

Selecting and developing organizational leaders should be viewed from a systems point of view. This demands a profound change in the way executives and boards of directors think about leaders and leadership. Rakesh Khurama’s study on how boards have recruited CEOs describes the ideal leader of the 90s as a charismatic, domineering, take-charge person with a big vision and ego to match. (1) While some of these leaders dazzled Wall Street and hiring them caused the stock to jump, many of them proved to be disasters for their companies. Now business has latched on to an ideal which is almost a mirror image of these narcissistic leaders.

Jim Collins in Good to Great describes a new ideal leader as modest as well as conscientious and capable.(2) For him, Abraham Lincoln exemplifies the ideal. However, some of the most effective and innovative leaders I’ve known had big visions and egos. As for Lincoln, his private secretary, John Hay, said “It is absurd to call him a modest man… it was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner never could forgive.”(3)

No Leadership Algorithm

Effective leaders are not all the same and trying to fit all managers into the same suit of clothing only increases managerial stress and frustration. To place the right kinds of leaders where they will do the most good, we need to be clear about what we want them to do and to understand who they are and what we can expect from them. Here’s an example from my consulting:

“I have made leadership one of the company’s key values,” CEO of an international technology company said to me. “But we are not getting the leaders we need. What’s wrong? Can you help us?”

“What kinds of leaders do you need,” I asked him. “What do you want them to do?” I thought I knew the answers to these questions, and he confirmed it. “We need leaders to produce change. We need innovation, new products, and our customers are demanding solutions that cut across the company’s silos That won’t happen without leadership.”

I started out by interviewing the CEO’s six direct reports. They had gone through some type of leadership training that they couldn’t describe very well except for a 360-degree evaluation by subordinates, peers and the CEO. What did they learn from that? A divisional president learned that his team thought he was too pushy and talked too much. I asked what he was going to do about it. “Well, I should talk less, listen more and build consensus.” But wasn’t his job to lead change, to teach and motivate his team? How would he get people who were comfortable with the status quo to leave their comfort zone without ruffling feathers?

The other corporate VPs were skeptical about the 360-degree evaluation. The process was disruptive and it wasn’t clear what to do about the results. Maybe it was useful for diagnosis for a manager with problems, but not for all managers. They also complained that attempts by senior managers to cascade their leadership training down the hierarchy didn’t work. At other companies I’ve worked with, they call cascading “pouring water into the clay layer” of middle management.

I brought the CEO’s team together for a two-day workshop on leadership. I started by having them clarify their own leadership roles. What did each need to do to develop and implement the corporate strategy? Did the others agree with their descriptions of their roles? What did they need from each other?

Using the results of a personality questionnaire I designed, members of the executive team openly discussed their leadership styles, with their strengths and weaknesses.(4) The corporate goals required partnering among these executives with personality styles and skills that were different, but which complemented each other. This was not a matter of finding an ideal leader, but of understanding how to be the right kind of leader for specific roles.

The team engaged in an exercise of selecting a leader for a major Asian project. The qualities required by the role were spelled out, and candidates were evaluated according to the criteria which included relevant experience, knowledge and personality.

The team recognized that to grow leadership, they had to think systemically. They could not develop the leadership they needed just by sending managers to courses and using instruments like 360-degree evaluations, even though these sometimes could be useful. Rather each VP had to work with his own management team to clarify leadership roles, the strengths and weaknesses of managers and the criteria for their evaluation including their efforts at personal development. The team agreed that they should meet quarterly to discuss and evaluate the top 70 managers of the company, to determine whether they were providing the right type of leadership and were in the roles where they would be most effective.

Is There an Ideal Leader

Is there is such a thing as an ideal leader? 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote a description that is as close to an ideal leader as I’ve ever seen.

The best of all leaders is the one who helps people so eventually they don’t need him.
Then comes the one they love and admire.
Then comes the one they fear.
The worst is the one who lets people push him around.
People don’t trust a leader who doesn’t trust them.
The best leader says little, but when he speaks people listen and when he is finished with his work, the people say we did it ourselves.

I have not met many ideal leaders in companies, and I don’t know how to develop one. Every once in a while I find one, usually in middle management. Since they don’t blow their own horns, they don’t stand out, and they seldom move to the top. And none of them ever founded an innovative company. However, we can develop effective leaders.

To do so requires, first of all, understanding the organization as a social system with a purpose and strategy for achieving that purpose. The needs for leadership are determined by how the system is structured. The challenge becomes fitting individuals with leadership ability into the leadership roles that are needed. This involves understanding them, including their skills and style, or in other words their brains and personality.

For example, a competent young manager with strategic intelligence, including systems thinking and street smarts, can be groomed for divisional leadership. A brilliant but obsessive manager best fits into a role leading process improvements and might benefit from coaching in emotional intelligence. A passionate and visionary narcissistic individual might be put in charge of a key project—but only if partnered with a detail-minded lieutenant. Furthermore, such an individual might benefit from coaching in communication skills.

Once we know the kind of individual needed in a role and the best available, each leader should have a personalized development plan, supported by the human resources department. For the company, development of the right kind of leaders should become a continuous learning process—part of transforming the corporate social system into a learning organization.

Research technology managers may understand all kinds of technology and software systems. To develop the right kind of leadership, they need to understand different types of systems, including the personality system and social system, the human side of organizations.


(1) Khurama, Rakesh. Searching for a Corporate Savior, the Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs, Princeton, 2002.
(2) Collins, James. Good To Great. HarperBusiness, 2001.
(3) Donald, David Herbert. We Are Lincoln Men. Simon & Schuster, 2003, p 218.
(4) Maccoby, Michael. The Productive Narcissist., Broadway Books 2003, p. 26.

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