Leadership is broken

The perceived wisdom about leaders, their characteristics and the development of those traits is wrong.

One only has to look at the incidence rate of flawed personalities holding positions of high-office to know this.

Driving this is a modern-day fashion so widely accepted that as far as I can tell, it isn’t even challenged.

That is ‘Leadership’ can be trained.

Put bluntly there seems to be an assumption that anyone can be a good leader if given the appropriate training and coaching support.

There’s two further aspects at play:

- Career development in biopharma pivots on the level of people-management undertaken

- The identification of people for development into leadership roles usually rests on the demonstration of competence/excellence in a separate discipline

You can probably see the issue with this already...

  • Take a large number of smart, driven people

  • Bake in the understanding that to progress you must manage people

  • To do this one must demonstrate leadership qualities

  • Identify those of high potential (not on leadership qualities, but on a more easily measured metric, like project success)

  • Retro-fit leadership skills using a development training program

Now I wouldn’t for a second suggest that this doesn’t work in finding excellent people who go onto become excellent leaders, but you don’t have to look hard for the false positives – those who have risen to senior leadership positions but despite (presumably) copious amounts of development, still display flawed, sometime damaging leadership characteristics.

And the biggest red-flag for this approach is the ‘Traits of leaders’ approach – that is retrospectively pointing to a set of characteristics in people in positions of power and saying ‘that’s what you need to be a leader’.

  • Steve Jobs and ‘vision’

  • Jeff Bezos and ‘delivery’

  • Barack Obama and ‘communication’

And I made sense of this only recently when speaking to a colleague, who happened to mention in conversation that ‘brave people tend to be leaders’.

And the penny dropped.

Note – not ‘leaders show bravery’ – which is putting the cart before the horse, but ‘brave people tend to be leaders’.

As professionals, we’re trying to retro-fit idealised behavioural characteristics onto those who have already show potential in a completely different field. The outcome is, at best, them ‘running a learned program’ that allows them to externally demonstrate what should really be innate human traits.

So instead let us look for people for whom these traits are built-in.

Not a program that they have to run, but a deeply-coded part of their operating system.

Let us find those that are honest, brave, empathetic, great communicators, and only into them train the capabilities required to do the jobs that they hold.

Let us consider a senior manager who displays negative personality traits, not as a price to be paid for their effectiveness, but a system-failure that has failed to identify the right sort of person in the first place.

The question for me is no longer ‘How do we define leadership?’ or even ‘How do we develop our leaders’, but instead ‘How do we identify those with the innate qualities required for leadership success, and then teach them their job’.


This is part of a series of posts by LUCENT biopharma – focused on the future of medicines and their marketing in the biopharma sector.

For more information, please go to www.lucentbiopharma.com

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