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Why We Pick the Wrong Leaders

Career Psychology
Why We Pick the Wrong Leaders


  • Why you should try not to try
  • Which personal qualities we should reward (but don’t)
  • How to figure out when you are at your best

Adam Grant is a renowned Wharton psychology professor and the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Isaac Lidsky is a speaker, entrepreneur, and author of Eyes Wide Open. He recently hosted Adam on Mastering Your Reality to discuss resilience, altruism, and how we can start choosing better leaders.

Isaac: I want to start with a phenomenal quote that you tweeted yesterday, from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He says, “It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.” I think that idea really encapsulates a lot of your work. I wonder if you agree, and maybe you can tell us why.

Adam: Yeah, it does. It’s funny, I first became aware of this not from Douglas Adams, but from sitting in an academic department, looking around and trying to figure out who wanted to be the department chair or the dean. Then immediately rule those people out of consideration, because if somebody was that zealous, if they were that excited to be in charge, you knew you couldn’t trust them to make good decisions for the group.

So there was almost this phenomenon where everybody would want not to be it. Then those would be the ones who ended up in the final pool, which of course, leads to people gaming the system. But it was clear to me from day one that the leaders we wanted were the ones who were passionate about helping others, who had much more of the mindset of being a giver than a taker.

That’s a lot of what I spent my career studying. That the people who are most motivated to get ahead, and want to be in charge, are often the ones who are least concerned about the mission of the organization, what the team is trying to accomplish. Although a lot of these takers are very charming upon first impression, because they know that’s how they gain the favor of the people they want to follow them, they’re the people that we can’t trust to be loyal. So I’ve been really curious about how we can weed takers out of our organizations, and create a world where it’s not actually punished to be concerned about others. [Where] if you are giver, you’re able to gain influence and have a greater impact.

Isaac: It almost seems like a Zen mind trick—you have to put the desire to lead and inspire out of your mind to become an effective leader and a source of inspiration.

Adam: There’s a great book on this by Ted Slingerland called Trying Not to Try, where he explores this paradox. The things you do to try to achieve success actually prevent you from achieving success. I made a very similar claim in Give and Take that if you focus on helping others, success often follows as a byproduct. You can think about all sorts of reasons for that.

One is motivation. It’s a lot more meaningful to work on things that help others than things that are just for your own gain. Another is learning—the time you spend solving other people’s problems actually gives you new knowledge and skills to solve your own problems. A third is social capital, that the time you invest in helping other people builds stronger relationships, and enhances your reputation.

If you understand this, you’re like, “Wow, I want to be a giver.” Only, if you do it to succeed, it’s probably not going to work, because then you’re just giving for taking reasons. That’s the paradox.

Isaac: Why is it that we have this bias toward the alpha qualities of cutthroat leadership? Susan Cain has talked about this a lot, particularly in higher education, and how we filter out people who aren’t alpha leaders within our elite institutions. How do we break through that cognitive bias?

Adam: I think the basic problem is that we equate confidence with competence. When we think about leaders especially, we want people who aren’t uncertain. We want them to convey that they have the answers, that they have a clear vision. If we’re going to follow someone, they better know where they’re taking us, right? Yet the very things that signal confidence are often not reliable cues of competence.

“If you focus on helping others, success often follows as a byproduct.”

What we want is to see organizations overcome the basic mistake that most of us make, which is to say, “Look, we want generosity. We want concern for others. We want compassion. We want helpfulness.” Then we only measure individual achievements. What if we had information about not only your success, but the time and energy you devoted to elevating the success of others? Not just the number of boxes you checked, but your real contributions to other people? I don’t know how to measure that in every organization, but I think that is the question we need to ask.

There was a great article in the Times a couple months ago on how there was a student applying to college. He had a recommendation letter written for him by his high school janitor, who was so impressed with the student’s concern for others and compassion, and said, “Look, this student didn’t even ask me for a letter, but I believe he deserves to be at any institution he wants.” What you want is more of that kind of behavior being picked up, whether it’s in college admissions, promotion decisions, or hiring decisions.

The most interesting example that I’ve seen in the last few years was at Corning, the company that made the Gorilla Glass for the iPhone and the iPad. They had this Corning Fellows Program, where if you’re a scientist or an engineer and you’re named a Fellow, you’re given a job and a lab for life.

What’s so cool about this Fellows program is that when they select people, they say, “Look, of course you have to be the lead author in a patent that drives $100 million or more.” Most organizations would stop there, but Corning says, “We’re worried that competent takers will pollute the culture, and that if we give them permanent job security, their contributions are going to dwindle.” So they have a second set of criteria, which includes, “Are you a supporting author on other people’s patents?”

This is genius, because it’s the people who, day in and day out, are sharing their knowledge and helping others solve problems that end up earning those [supporting] patent authorships. Corning says you have to show that you can drive your own innovation, and you also have to enhance the innovation of others. You’ve got to do both.

The question that I would ask to any organization or any leader is, “What is your equivalent of [supporting] patent authorship that shows [who] the real givers are?” Not because we want to incentivize takers to be better thinkers, but because we want to take away the disincentives to giving, and show that that behavior has value too.

“I think the basic problem is that we equate confidence with competence.”

Isaac: I love it. On the theme of confidence versus competence, do you think that the root of our failure to avail ourselves of great ideas is this assumption that “I can’t be vulnerable”? [Like,] “I’ve got to appear confident and all-knowing, and if there’s any level of doubt in this untested idea, I’m gonna just keep quiet about it.”

Adam: I think that’s a huge problem in organizations. You have so many leaders who feel tremendous pressure to have all the answers, and to convey what turns out to be an illusion of certainty. We might even call it a delusion of certainty, rather than an illusion, because if you look at the downfall of so many organizations, you can trace it to this [belief] that, “I can predict the future.” Whether it’s Blockbuster saying, “We don’t really want to acquire Netflix. We’re all good.” Or Blackberry saying, “People only want to use phones for work. Why would we want all these apps?” Or Polaroid saying, “Yeah, we’ve done some pioneering innovation in digital imaging, but people will always want a printed photograph.”

In hindsight, it’s so easy to laugh at these examples, but in the moment, this is exactly what we pay leaders to do. To say, “Look, I’m in charge of this organization, because I have a crystal ball, and I’m better at forecasting what’s going to happen than anybody else.” We need to shatter those illusions as quickly as we can. But that requires us to select, and even reward, leaders who are willing to say, “You know what, I don’t know the answer here. I’m willing to make a bet, but I’m [only] about 64% confident that this is going to work.”

Isaac: In all the examples you cited, the certain path was by far the safest, easiest, most comfortable. I think this link to confidence is interesting in the sense that you’ve got to be vulnerable to recognize that you don’t have all the answers.

Adam: And how do you get leaders to embrace more of that? The moment you as a boss speak, is the moment that everybody else starts to conform and say, “We don’t want to be too critical of the person in charge.”

I’ve worked with a bunch of organizations that have said, “We’re going to start a meeting, and we’re going to have the leader speak last. We’ll go around the room, we’ll hear everybody’s ideas and opinions, and only then will the leader weigh in,” hoping not only that you get everybody’s more honest and candid views, but also, that the leader is then a bit more informed, and can start thinking about combining different views.

Isaac: Yeah, and maybe even start with questions, not statements.

Adam: That would be an excellent place to start. Warren Berger wrote [a book] called A More Beautiful Question, and one of the questions he asks in the book is, “What if companies had mission questions, instead of mission statements?” I think that would be so cool.

Isaac: Switching gears, I wonder if you might tell us a bit about your most recent book, which you co-authored with Sheryl Sandberg.

Adam: While we were writing Option B, one of the things that I was really struck by is how many moments that shape people’s resilience are things that the people who are responsible for them don’t even remember. Looking at the research, some people would carry through their lives a saying from a parent, a relative, or a mentor. Then you’d go back to that person who so shaped them, and the person doesn’t even remember saying it. They’re like, “Wait, I’m pretty sure I never gave you that advice,” and yet it was so pivotal.

Something we overlook is that so much of our resilience comes from the actions we take to help others. It’s really in supporting others that we discover strength we didn’t know we had. I think if we could be clearer about that impact, if we knew of all those moments where other people had depended on us and were influenced by us, it would be a lot easier to know that we matter, and that we do have the strength to get through different situations.

Especially after watching your TED Talk, I’m so curious about that. What are the things that you’ve learned about resilience from both your experience, and from other people?

“It’s really in supporting others that we discover strength we didn’t know we had.”

Isaac: In my book, Eyes Wide Open, I share a vision on how we are empowered to control the reality we experience. It’s a vision that has brought me endless fulfillment, and success, and joy in my life. It’s a great blessing. Now, I gained that vision idiosyncratically, through the process of slowly losing my sight, going blind. I am convinced to my core that the lessons learned, the insights gained from that experience, can have applicability to everyone.

[But] I get a lot of feedback from folks to the effect of, “You need to experience that kind of adversity for yourself in order to really gain and implement these insights.” I don’t believe that’s true. I wouldn’t have written the book if I thought that were true, but it worries me.

Adam: This is a common area of debate. Why do we have to go through [struggle] ourselves in order to learn the lessons of resilience? Why can’t we learn them vicariously through other people, through books?

We were writing about posttraumatic growth, and one of the things that Sheryl voiced was, “Well, what about pre-traumatic growth? What if you could learn these lessons without facing this kind of adversity?” I think that’s what your work is all about. Trying to share what you’ve learned with people who maybe won’t go through something really awful, but still want to have that wisdom in their life.

Isaac: That is definitely the endeavor. I hope it’s not a fool’s errand.

Adam: I’m pretty confident that it isn’t. There’s this exercise that I love called “the reflected best self-portrait.” It’s an exercise [developed] by a bunch of colleagues where they said, “Look, we often see ourselves most clearly through the eyes of others.” This is great for breaking the delusions we talked about earlier, but it’s also great for learning about strengths we didn’t know we had. The exercise asks people to reach out to 15 or 20 people who know them well—friends, family, co-workers, et cetera. Ask them, “Will you tell me a story about a time when I was at my best?”

Collecting the stories is incredibly meaningful, and enjoyable. You then have to analyze those stories, and write a portrait of the common themes. “Who am I at my best?”

When I first learned about this I said, “This is obviously a powerful way to learn, but what if we turned it around? What if we just shared those stories with other people?” I took a week over the holidays, and I said, “I’m going to pick 100 people who have really mattered in my life, and I’m going to write a story for each of them about what they’ve contributed to my life.”

It was one of the best weeks I’ve ever spent, sharing the stories as opposed to just asking for them. I’ve been thinking about it in the context of pre-traumatic growth, because it’s one of the many things we can do to bring more gratitude into our life, to strengthen our connections with others.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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