Why Do We Hire Horrible Leaders?

Have you ever worked for a boss that was horrible?  That’s an easy question to answer, isn’t it!  The person came immediately to your mind (for my staff reading this, if I came to your mind first, you’re fired! I tease – you’re not fired – just come see me after your done reading this…) Almost all of us, probably 99.99% of us, have worked for a boss/leader we thought was just God awful.  It’s the perplexity of leadership.  I like to blame the entire leadership book industry.  Someone gets a promotion to a leadership position and they instantly get online for the latest leadership babble that’s being sold by some idiot that was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time of a successful company and now she or he is going to tell us how to be a great leader using 7 simple steps!  BS!

But, really, why do we hire such bad leaders?  CNN had an article recently that looked into this:

“The short answer is, we focus on all the wrong things, like a candidate’s charm, their stellar résumé or their academic credentials. None of this has any bearing on leadership potential. And despite claims to the contrary, even a candidate’s past results have little bearing on whether the promoted individual will succeed once promoted.

At best, a “track record” tells only half of the story. In a new position, the candidate will have to face new obstacles, deal with a new team, manage more people introduce new products and do it all without a clear road map.”

Ok, so we aren’t focused on hiring the right traits that makes a great leader.  The reality is, in most of our organizations, we hire “next-man-up” philosophy.  “Hey, Jill, is the best producer in the group, congrat’s Jill! you’re now the next boss!”  About 90% of leadership hires happen like this!  Most of you will attempt to call that “Succession Planning”, but it’s not, it’s “convenience planning” and it’s bad HR.

Can we all agree to one thing (this statement is a setup because I know we can’t agree to this!)?  Being able to do the “job” (meaning the specific tasks of the functional area you’re a leader for) has very little to do with one’s success at being a leader.  Can we?  And yet, it becomes the first thing we focus on when going to hire a leader.  “Well, how good of a coder are they? How do you expect them to manage coders if they aren’t the best coder?”  You’ve had this conversation haven’t you!?  Most of the best leaders of all time, had very little functional skill of the leadership position they were successful in.  What they did have, were these things:

  • Integrity
  • Passion
  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Judgement
  • Empathy
  • Emotional Intelligence

We pick bad leaders because we don’t focus on the traits above.  It doesn’t matter if the person can do the job of those they are managing – great leaders will overcome this fact very easily.  If that’s your biggest worry, they probably won’t be a good leader anyway.  When you have a great leader – the conversation never goes around whether the person can do the job of those they manage – it’s a non-issue.  They can lead and leaders know how to engage those who can do to make their departments great.

7 thoughts on “Why Do We Hire Horrible Leaders?

  1. It’s mind-boggling how I can work for one of the biggest companies in the world and this type of teaching is not pushed. Instead of long-term gain we look to the next qtr and all-the-while we’re losing money from inadequate leadership

  2. Hello Pat, I agree with your comments. Listening is required.

    We measure the following 20 items to assess job talent in employees including leaders.

    1. Thinking Styles (5 scales) 

    – Learning Index 

    – Verbal Skill 

    – Verbal Reasoning 

    – Numerical Ability 

    – Numeric Reasoning 



    2. Behavioral Traits (9 scales)
    – Energy Level 

    – Assertiveness 

    – Sociability
    – Manageability 

    – Attitude 

    – Decisiveness 

    – Accommodating 

    – Independence 

    – Objective Judgment 



    3. Occupational Interests (6 scales) 

    – Enterprising 

    – Financial/Administrative 

    – People Service
    – Technical 

    – Mechanical 

    – Creative

  3. Hello Tim,

    The same problem exits in all levels of an organization but it is just more critical for the one and only leader.

    The same process, i.e., hiring for job talent, that can correct the problem for non-leader position works for the leader position as well.

    80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
    80% of managers are ill suited to effectively manage people.
    The two 80 percents are closely related.

    Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent 



    Employers do a… 

    A. GREAT job of hiring competent employees. 

    B. Good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture. 

    C. POOR job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job. 


    Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent

    There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless “hiring talent” means “hiring employees.” Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can’t answer the five questions below with specificity, we can’t hire or manage talent effectively.
    1. How do we define talent?
    2. How do we measure talent?
    3. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
    4. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
    5. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

    Most managers cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

    Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

    Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

  4. Pingback: Why Do We Hire Horrible Leaders? « BIZCATALYST360°

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  6. I agree with all the traits listed that we should look to in a quality leader, but I also think there are two other essential qualities in a great leader–a great ability to listen and being a life-long learner. More than any other traits, these two qualities will help a leader overcome his lack of being able “to do” the actual work.

  7. Yes. This! Performance and leadership potential are different and most organizations, and most managers, cannot and do not distinguish accurately enough between high potential and high performance in role despite the fact that most of them know that these are different. In covering this topic with my friend Henryk Krajewski (I think you met Henryk at our customer conference last year?), he’s been a big advocate of CEB model that says POTENTIAL (which is how we should be determining future leaders) is someone with the ability, motivation, values and commitment to rise and succeed in more senior, critical positions. And it is a multiplicative relationship, such that if any one of these factors is zero, the individual simply doesn’t have high potential. For example, really smart, has the aspiration, but doesn’t feel committed to the culture and values of the organization…not high potential. Conversely, if someone is highly committed, lots of aspiration, but doesn’t have the raw ability…not high potential.

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