Earlier in the year, my partners and I had the opportunity to spend a few days at West Point, where we heard from some of the Army’s top experts on Leadership. My partner Mark wrote a great piece about it in a previous blog – In-Extremis-Leadership . It was an incredible experience.
There were a couple of interesting take-aways for me, that will likely seem very obvious when I share them. The first, was that in the Army’s study of leadership – when the going gets tough (and it can get really tough in the army when someone is trying to kill you) – the only leadership quality that really matters, is competence. Competence – knowing what it will take to truly execute the plan, having the experience to anticipate potential obstacles and having the wisdom to choose a path when the unexpected happens. In those life and death situations, people follow the person they believe is most competent and most likely to get them safely through. Things like Charisma, active listening, interpersonal skills, and other “soft” skills, drop out of sight on the list qualities people would like to see in their leader.
Too often (whether they know it or not) people make hiring decisions based on whether they “like” the person they are interviewing. When hiring a CEO, or any leader, it is very easy to interview for interpersonal skills, charisma and salesmanship. Those capabilities are right on the surface, visible to everyone. It takes more time, more probing and serious background checks to uncover the competence level of a potential hire. The trip to West Point really reinforced that, for start-ups, who are constantly under fire and fighting for their business lives, it is competence that matters, especially for the CEO. I think sometimes VC’s may overweight things like, the ability to present to investors, and not pay enough attention to competence in running the business. In a study done at the University of Chicago, that looked at CEO’s of Private Equity and Venture Capital backed companies, ( “Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter” -Kaplan), they found that interpersonal skills tended to be overvalued and executive skills were undervalued. Don’t get me wrong, soft skills are important, too. But they have to be in support of competence, not instead of it.
The second thing that has stuck with me from that session, has to do with the role technology plays in leadership today. We had breakfast one morning with one of the officers who had spent time in Iraq. He was relating how the use of video conferencing, mobile communications and intelligence, were enabling Generals in the Pentagon to participate directly in tactical planning sessions in Iraq. And this was not a good thing, even though they had access to more information about the situation, than any other conflict/war in history. They still weren’t there. On the ground. With the troops. With the enemy. In the heat of battle. They were miles away and there is no substitute for a competent leader that is embedded in the conflict, or situation. No combination of technologies can come close to communicating the amount of information, that the leader embedded in the conflict, can absorb and process.
I believe there is a message in here for the Directors on a companies Board. The vast majority of Board members are very sincere in their desire to help the shareholders and company succeed. But, information technology is enabling much higher levels of micro-management, and Board members have to know how to walk that fine line between helping and meddling. This is especially true when a company is going through challenging times. When the going gets tough, if you believe you have a competent CEO, then you must give them the room to operate that they need. Have to work hard to resist the urge to help too much (micro-manage). Have to focus less on how they are going about it, and more on what they are trying to accomplish.
In some ways, it comes down to one of the first lessons that I learned in management. Another, very obvious observation of mine. But I believe it is true at any level of leadership/management in an organization -
If you let people make a contribution — they will.
What do you think are the characteristics of a great leader, or great leadership? What are the most important qualities for a CEO, or any leader, that is trying to build a successful business? I think competence, as defined above, is at the top of the list. What do you think? What else is a must?