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You Can't Make Your Ideal Leader

Every day, everywhere, for almost all time, businesses have operated on the same model: figure out what a market wants, design a product with the qualities and features the market finds attractive, and sell it. If you think about it, modern organizations have taken much the same approach to the problem of inadequate or ineffective leadership talent. Companies decide what traits make up a good leader in their organization – vision, empathy, drive, and so on - then create a model of some geometric shape or other that purports to explain the relationships between those traits. Then, managers are tested to identify whether they possess the proper traits, scored on competency models to ensure they possess these traits to the proper degrees, trained, coached, and scored again. Repeat until the person fits the model. And then, organizational success.

Or so goes the theory: but I’ve often thought that, if this were as effective an undertaking as it’s presented to be, we might have seen a similar approach taken elsewhere in history. Did great leaders achieve their results with subordinate leaders who all possessed the same traits?

It’s worth considering the example of perhaps history’s greatest soldier, Napoleon Bonaparte. Between 1804 and 1814, his French Empire dominated Europe to an extent not seen since the Romans. He was himself a genius, not least in recognizing that his success depended on having people of real ability around him. He was probably history’s first real talent scout. “When I want a man,” he once said, “I will kiss his rear end.” And he meant it. His senior ranks were not open only to aristocrats: In Napoleon’s Empire, sons of barrelmakers, merchants, bureaucrats, and even smugglers, commanded armies alongside nobles as generals.

The best of these Napoleon created Marshals of the Empire. Many of these 26 men were among the very best military talent of their age. The Duke of Wellington admitted he never slept well in the field when facing Andre Massena. Joachim Murat was arguably the greatest cavalry commander in world history. And on the battlefield, Louis Nicholas Davout was nearly Napoleon’s equal.

So what kind of mold did they fit?

They were ambitious. They were vain (Napoleon wore the uniform of a colonel of dragoons, to deliberately contrast himself with the lavish gold-laced uniforms of his Marshals). They were venal, supplementing their Imperial incomes by looting their way across Europe. They were highly intelligent, though not highly educated. Above all, they displayed a legendary personal bravery. When his men refused to assault an enemy city’s walls after previous ones had been repulsed, Jean Lannes rallied them to a final, ultimately successful attempt by picking up a scaling ladder and marching toward the walls completely alone. Nicolas-Charles Oudinot was wounded 36 times in his career (and died in his bed at 70!). Michel Ney had four horses shot out from underneath him at the battle of Waterloo.

And that’s about it. If Napoleon had had organizational psychologists around in 1805, it would have been amusing to watch them present that list as the basis of His Majesty’s Imperial Competency Model.

Ney had a fiery temper to match his red hair; Davout was cool as ice. Francois Lefevbre was a devout Catholic and devoted husband; Massena was an atheist and an insatiable womanizer. Lannes was respected by Napoleon as a trusted advisor; in council, the Emperor considered Murat a moron. Emmanuel de Grouchy was polished and well-mannered; Pierre Charles Augereau was a swaggering public brawler. Napoleon praised Bon-Adrien Jannot de Moncey for his high integrity; reflecting on the talented Nicolas Soult’s brazen unscrupulousness, the Emperor once said, “I should have made an example of Soult and had him shot.”

I could keep going.

Pick your favorite leader in actual history and study his or her subordinate leaders, and you’ll likely see a similar story; people don’t become effective leaders because they all function according to some tidy geometrical model. People bring the sum totals of their backgrounds, their educations, their personalities, their efforts, and their foibles to bear on a particular leadership need as best they understand, hone a few of their abilities to the task as they can, and get out and lead.

This isn’t the shallow observation of some history geek: it’s one of the findings of researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, as summarized in their outstanding book, “Nine Lies About Work.”

US businesses spend about $14 billion a year on leadership development, and surveys show that 60% to 90% of executives don’t consider the efforts to be effective. Yet organizations continue to lavish so many resources on something they on which they see so little return. Perhaps it’s time to stop applying a model of producing consumer goods to the process of “producing” leaders. The fact is, we can improve on a few of our shortcomings here and there, with determination, focused practice, and good coaching; but the idea that somebody else can test, workbook, video, and appraise us into somebody else’s model of an “ideal” leader is an academic theory not borne out by survey results, research, or history.


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