E Pluribus Unum, our former national motto — out of many, one — almost everything we do in life, we do as a team, starting with being born into a family, progressing to a school, maturing in the workplace, participating in a church, and retiring in a community. We interact with and combine our talents and resources with others while navigating life’s journey. Teams are dynamic — continually gaining or losing members; complicating or simplifying goals; increasing or decreasing standards; adding or subtracting values; praising or sullying reputations; hiring competent or firing incompetent leaders.
Members have expectations that being on a team offers distinction, growth, advancement, rewards, satisfaction, safety, competition and self-worth. Business owners have hopes that highly motivated, diversified teams, led by competent leaders, create one source of energy to operate at the most efficient and effective yield to maximize profits. Competent leaders maximize the potential of every team member and create an unbelievable synergy that amplifies productivity and growth.
How do you measure leader competence? Many of us put several acronyms after our name to announce to the public our level of expertise: CEO, COO, CFO, VP, AVP, SVP, Ph.D., LLD, MBA, MD, PMP, RMP, and the list goes on and on. Public services, such as fire or law enforcement, use rank insignia, unit patches, ribbons and medals as a visual sign of competence. A highly decorated military senior officer or noncommissioned officer, with a distinctive unit combat patch and a chest full of ribbons, is instantly recognized as a competent leader. Medical and legal professionals hang specialty and completion certificates on their walls to announce their level of competence. Most of us spend an extraordinary amount of time massaging resumes and adding as many professional levels of acronyms so that we can telegraph our supreme level of competence in responding to a job advertisement.
And why shouldn’t we? Before we meet with a doctor, attorney, tax adviser, financial planner or the like, we go to the internet and try to determine the prospective professional’s level of competence. We seek the most competent when it comes to our health, legal or financial well-being … we don’t want a brain surgeon performing open-heart surgery on us. I’m in the habit of going to Yelp when looking for a restaurant, plumber, carpenter, electrician, auto body man and the like. If the majority of their reviews are not promising, I chalk it up to a lack of competence and avoid their services.
Boards of directors and executive-level management do the same thing when hiring a leader. In a sense, they try to Yelp potential candidates to evaluate their competence because their single most important task is to employ competent leadership. Failing this task jeopardizes the health of the organization and may ultimately result in its downfall. I’ve experienced lousy leadership hires that had an extraordinary impact on the organization: team member productivity, creativity and generosity eroded, and critical personnel bailed. The organization went into a death spiral, ultimately collapsing because bad leadership was not replaced soon enough.
Avoiding the ‘Peter Principle’
One of the hardest tasks for a leader when hiring or promoting an individual to a critical position is avoiding the “Peter Principle.” The principle, developed by Laurence J. Peter, and written about by Raymond Hull, posits that, eventually, given enough positions in a hierarchy and time, we will be promoted to a level of our incompetence, or plateau. Peter argues that if you are competent at your job, you will earn consideration for promotion to the next level of competence. Assuming you are promoted, and over time successful, you will be considered for promotion to the next level of power. The cycle will continue until you reach your level of incompetence. I’ve seen Peter’s principle played out many times while in the Army and private sector, often asking how that individual ever got selected to that position of responsibility lacking so much competence.
The best leader hires are ones where they are competent to perform in the requisite position. Competence means having the appropriate knowledge, skills and ability — and necessary judgment, emotional intelligence, decision-making, communication, and cultural and collaboration attributes — to successfully lead a team at a specific organizational stratification. Such leaders create, out of many team members, one source of energy operating at peak productivity. Finding this leader is one of the most challenging and essential tasks for boards of directors, business owners or existing executives.
There is no more significant consequential decision than selecting a leader — no matter at the highest levels of our federal, state and local governments, Fortune 500 companies, mom-and-pop retail outlets or nonprofit organizations in our community. Far better to take a very formal, deliberate, contemplative approach to this selection, than an informal, casual, unreflective method. The consequences of a lousy leadership selection will reverberate through the organization and have the potential to set back the growth trajectory for years. Find the right leader, and out of many, you make one. This is how you lead, think, plan and act.
Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.