Paolo-Moscuzza-OECamI recall assessing a director (Tim) as part of a selection process. He had a number of great strengths including creativity, passion and drive. He was very open about being less effective when it came to patience and rule following. My conclusion was that he displayed well what the organisation was desperate to employ. He was appointed, delivered exceptional results and upset a few lower performers along the way.

The interesting point here was that when he had been assessed by his previous employer, they had majored on his ‘development areas’ which resulted in him being given a ‘red light’ score. They wanted him to build his patience and rule following. He had flatly refused.

In the drive for more diverse workplaces, policies and procedures are produced to increase awareness, develop and promote diversity in the widest sense of the word. However, in these same organisations, I see the antithesis when it comes to the use of psychological profiling and assessments. i.e. major cloning is taking place.

It goes something like this:

  1. We need people who can lead our organisation
  2. Leadership attributes need to be completely transferable across businesses
  3. We therefore need to put all leaders in one of three boxes – problem (red), ok (amber) or high potential (green)
  4. We can use the colours quickly to assess and plan our future succession.

This nasty spread of oversimplification is quite contagious and I have even seen this ‘traffic light’ approach used with IQ and Emotional Intelligence  measures, where exploration of the subtleties and nuances is fundamental to understanding the person.

What is so attractive is the apparent logic in that it quickly removes ambiguities and simplifies everything onto a colourful spreadsheet with easy-to-read traffic light indicators. It makes it easy to report results and generates confidence and certainty. A large sample, so defined, is especially seductive.

However, exceptional leaders most often come with a few downsides in their approach. These downsides can be labelled, which gets people excited because that makes them sound concrete, especially with evidence to back it up. But having a couple of downsides does not mean that a leader with great strengths is less effective overall. Rejecting leaders because of a single attribute that has put them in a ‘red box’ can be a costly business for growing organisations.  Instead, knowing and working with that diversity in approach and ability is immensely powerful.

Some aspects of human behaviour can be reduced neatly into simple models. However, leadership capability is so much more than one of three colours. Useful information about leadership potential does not come from categorising people by ‘traffic lights’. Think instead about a roundabout – how good the driver is depends on who or what is driving alongside them, what the conditions are, where they are heading, what is coming at them from around the corner and how powerful their vehicle is – as well as the competencies, experience and skills they bring.

We need to define leadership capability more in terms of the spectrum of variables and their interactions and the complexity of choices that can be made at the roundabout rather than in terms of the simplicity of traffic lights and the laws that govern them.

Tim successfully grew his part of the business during a very difficult economic climate. His impatience combined with creativity and passion was critical to super pleasing his clients during the recession. He continues to follow the rules that matter and questions and changes the antiquated ones!