“Leadership Qualities” vs. Competence: Which Matters More?

Stanford’s Lindred Greer has published an interesting new study which seeks to answer one of the great leadership selection queries: Will an organization achieve peak performance with a highly competent leader or one with the strongest leadership qualities?

From the Harvard Business Review, the short answer is that the leader's competency – perhaps above other factors – has the greater impact on the success of the team.

In one group of teams, influence was aligned with competence: the person who knew the most about the task to be done led the team. These groups performed best.

A second group of teams shared power – they were relatively non-hierarchical. This group did not perform as well as the first, but they did outperform our third group of teams — hierarchical teams with a randomly chosen leader.

We replicated these findings in the field, by the way. We studied 49 teams at a publicly held Dutch company; the teams were auditing finances in search of tax evasion and fraud. If the team leader didn’t have a deep, technical understanding of tax fraud, he or she led the team badly astray.

This is simple to understand in more everyday examples. Would you prefer an airplane captain with vast experience or one who effortlessly rallies others to the cause? Of course we want someone who can fly the plane expertly. And that is Greer's greater point: depth of experience and expertise allows highly competent leaders to make difficult decisions and mentor others to success.

So… easy, right? Not so fast. Studies show organizations demonstrate a bias towards high leadership dynamic over high skill in selection, even when similar selection has led to failure.

In the end, executives must remember to hire for purpose. If we strive to build highly successful teams that achieve difficult goals, then the leadership for these teams must be exceptionally skilled.

Simply stated: competency matters.

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