Why do we hire the wrong leaders?

There once was a time,

in the not so distant past,

when penguins ruled many lands

in the Sea of Organizations.


These penguins were not always wise,

they were not always popular,

but they were always in charge.

“A peacock in the land of penguins”, Barbara “BJ” Hateley & Warren H. Schmidt

Which leader would you hire, A or B?

Candidate A: “I know what is wrong and I have a plan to get us back on track, it is simple, straight forward and we can act quickly. I have done it in the past and can do it again.

Candidate B: “We don’t know enough yet to have a plan. Given the amount of complexity involved we will never know everything, but hopefully we can gain enough knowledge to plot a successful course.

Candidate A’s demeanour is strong, confident, they have the answer.

Candidate B’s demeanour is careful, considered, they know where to look to find answers, but can’t promise a quick fix.

If we selected Candidate A who would really blame us. They have the answers, they are confident. Candidate B is not as certain, is not offering any guarantee of success. But the business and academic research shows us that the right choice is Candidate B.

Added to this is a self reinforcing loop based on “it takes one to know one”. The reasons to select Candidate B can be see by people like Candidate B, but in the world there are approximately 40% of people like Candidate A, with only 5% like Candidate B.

Therefore, the problem is not just with the candidates. it is also with those that are selecting the candidates. The selection panel, the Board and/or CEO, is typically made up of Candidate A types, therefore which candidate will they select?

Hateley & Schmidt’s parable, “Peacock in the Land of Penguins” uses the penguin as the metaphor for management that all looks the same, talks the same and thinks the same. (Apologies to any individual penguins if you have been offended). If the penguins are selecting the next leader the chances are they will select another penguin. Especially because they themselves will know the answer, will have a plan, will have no doubt.

By the way, if you are wondering about the peacock in this tale, and whether they succeed, you will have to buy the book. But you can probably guess the ending.

A popular way of developing the next group of leaders is Top Grading. This is where everyone is put into an A, B or C bucket. The method says that we need to embrace the A’s, develop the B’s and exit the C’s. The problem with this is that in the world of penguins guess who we find in the A bucket, that’s right more penguins. Guess where the peacocks end up?

There is a Buddhist saying; No doubt, no learning; Small doubt, small learning; Great doubt, great learning.

The reason why Candidate A is confident, has strong convictions and has a plan, is because they are unable to see the complexity in the world. They cannot hold a worldview in their head that can take in the immense number of variables that exist in the world. What they see is a much simpler world, a world where it is easy to have no doubt. This is their reality.

If the selection panel has the same worldview as Candidate A and doesn’t understand the complexity in the world, Candidate B is seen as indecisive, without a vision or strategy.

Candidate A believes that all you have to do is pull a management lever; make an acquisition, cut expenses, restructure the organization, execute a redundancy program, set up company wide bonuses, bring in outside consultants or hold a leadership retreat. Miraculously success will follow. And if it doesn’t work, either go around the loop again or declare success anyway and move on to the next big job.

Candidate B, on the other hand, appreciates all the complexity in the world. There is good reason to have doubt. They need to work with their team to build a shared mental model of how things work and what levers can be pulled, when, and by how much. The mental model is shared because they understand that there is not enough time in the day for one person to be able to absorb, digest and act appropriately within the sea of organizational complexity.

By the way I wouldn’t recommend listing on your CV you have great doubt! The world is full of penguins who don’t get it.

Jim Collins, in his book “How the Mighty Fall”, describes the first stage of decline as the Hubris Born of Success. Hubris meaning excessive pride or self confidence. Collins’ explanation of this stage of decline aligns to the difference in thinking between our Candidate A and Candidate B;

“When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) [Candidate A] replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they will no longer work”) [Candidate B], decline will very likely follow.”

Our Candidate B resembles the Type 5 Leader that Collins found in his book, “Good to Great” which was the key requirement to becoming a great organization.

We actually need both types of people. We need Candidates A’s in middle management roles with the right structure, measurements and culture around them so that their passion and ambition is channelled in the right direction with the right behavior. It is Candidate A’s success at this level that makes them a candidate for promotion, but beware the Peter Principle.

During our lives many of us, 40%, develop the capability of Candidate A’s. But only a few of us develop the capability of Candidate B’s, 5%, which is required for senior roles where the world is more complex. To understand the requirements of this vertical structure please read Vertical Leverage.

How can we change our leadership selection process?

If we accept that as we rise through the levels of an organization, the roles become broader and more complex. Then we should also accept that we need people that can handle the challenge of these broader and more complex roles, our Candidate B’s.

Now what if we could measure this capability in a person?

Most assessments that we know of, like Myers Briggs, look at our preferred style of working, whether we are introverted or extroverted, etc. Instead there are assessments that measure our level of development and our ability to handle complexity. The good thing about these assessments is that they are very difficult to “game”. Meaning their results are very true to our level of capability.

Now here’s the rub.

Given the years and years of penguins selecting penguins, if an executive team takes these assessments the chances are the results will be less than flattering. This can be very confronting because it is not just telling us whether we are an introvert or an extrovert, this is saying if we have the capability to hold the position we are in or not!

Of course the alternative is to not know. Ignorance does make the world much simpler, but more dangerous.

Our Candidate A is not worried; they have no doubt that they have the capability to hold their position. “No need to waste time on these silly assessments.”

On the other hand, Candidate B’s open mind makes them pause, to wonder if they have the capability to hold their position. “These assessments make for an excellent learning and development opportunity.”

The capability assessments are based on the research of Jane Loevinger, Suzanne Cook-Greuter, William Torbert, Kurt Fischer, Elliot Jaques, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow and more.

They include;

From the Integral Organization Model, the table below shows how the levels of development/capability align to the vertical layers of an organization.

  • Stratum Theory, which includes Stratified Systems Theory, looks at the time span each layer of an organization should operate within and therefore the level of complexity found there.
  • Action Logic is how we respond to situations we encounter like how Candidate A and B had different responses in their interviews.
  • Spiral Dynamics is how culture develops from a structured rules based one to a broader global view.

An example of these layers of capability and thinking can be found in “What does Management do?”.

The challenge is the penguins don’t actually know they are penguins and believe they are right in saying that “these assessments are a waste of time”.

And as Hateley & Schmidt tell us, the penguins are “always in charge”.

Our hope is that Boards and Wall Street Analysts will start to use these assessments to swing the selection criteria in favour of Candidate B’s.

Integral Organization Model: Summary of Layers and Capabilities