Want To Avoid A Catastrophe When Hiring A New CEO? Try Using This Simple Checklist

This post was originally published on the Forbes online Leadership Blog on 11/29/17.

What are the fundamental cognitive capacities and character traits that a person absolutely must have to fulfill a leadership role when lives and fortunes are at stake?   I became interested in developing a simple tool that defined these fundamentals.   My search was initially prompted by curiosity about the language of the U.S. Constitution’s 25th Amendment, much in the news lately, which states, in Article 4,  that the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet can remove a President from duty if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

I started to wonder how the Vice President and cabinet members would actually critically assess “ability to discharge the powers and  the duties of the office.”  What standard could they use?  A little searching led me to conclude that there really wasn’t such a standard readily available.  But as a psychiatrist, I knew about “ego functions” and “executive functions”, two sets of ideas that together describe in detail the specific mental and emotional components that go into the creation of  a high functioning, reliable adult.

A little more searching led me to a remarkable document, the Army Field Manual on Leader Development (AFM). In over 130 pages, the AFM lays out the U.S. Army’s expectations regarding core capacities for leadership.  In fact, the AFM is based on the same well-founded psychological knowledge about adult development and functioning that I was familiar with.

I distilled the AFM’s core leadership competencies, integrated it with my psychiatric knowledge and experience and created a five-point checklist for determining ability to serve in a position of high responsibility.

But it occurred to me that the President of the United States is far from the only person to whom we entrust our lives or fortunes—the checklist would be useful in a Board’s search for a new CEO, a university’s search for its next President, or even your search for the next nanny you are going to trust with your children’s lives. VC firms considering an investment would be wise to  ensure a company’s CEO possesses these essential capacities.

In assessing a potential leader, you can’t expect perfection.  But you should expect a leader to be acutely aware of any personal shortcomings and have a positive, ongoing plan to improve and compensate for weaknesses.

Possession of these core competencies does not guarantee leadership success. It’s the reverse. Serious deficiencies in one or more of these capacities can predict significant problems or failures.

Five Core Cognitive Capacities And Character Traits A Leader Must Have

Here is a brief introduction to the five core cognitive capacities and character traits a leader at a very high level of responsibility needs:

Trust—This includes both the ability to inspire trust and the ability to trust others. The leader lacking in trust can’t form functional teams, is drained of energy by habitually feeling beleaguered and consistently blames others. Mutual trust is essential to the maintenance of an ethical climate in an organization.

Discipline/Self-control—A leader must have the capacity to contain himself in the fact of strong negative emotions and not resort to angry outbursts, blaming, or impulsive action. Self-control is necessary for a powerful leader to resist temptation, wait for additional information, think before acting, and avoid the abuse of power.

Critical Thinking/Judgment— The abilities to assess, plan, strategize, problem solve and analyze are all dependent on critical thinking, perhaps the highest level mental function. The capacity for critical thinking allows a leader to anticipate far-reaching consequences of actions, gather and synthesize opinions and data, remember past experiences and use them to inform but not imprison current thinking.

Self-awareness— A leader lacking in this trait is blind to her weaknesses and biases and therefore unable to compensate for them or grow in capacity. She cannot assess her impact on others and as a result her communications are confusing.  Because she is unable to monitor her own emotional states she is vulnerable to plowing into obstacles or creating crises. Without self-awareness, a leader is dangerously blind to what she doesn’t know.

Empathy—Empathy is the capacity that allows a leader to understand the perspectives and feelings of others and foresee the impact of his actions and events on them. Effective communication depends on empathy. Without leader empathy, team morale is fragile.  The leader lacking in empathy is driven by his own needs and blind to or indifferent to the needs of others.   Empathy is not the same as compassion, or caring about others’ needs and experience.  Manipulative and authoritarian leaders can be adept at intuiting other peoples’ vulnerabilities and exploiting them.  Adding the capacity to care about—not just perceive—the experience of others creates a beloved leader.

The search for the traits of great leaders permeates business literature, both popular and academic. What’s different about this model?  Most attempts to identify the traits of great leaders look to real-life examples.  For example, what made Jack Welsh, Steve Jobs, John D. Rockefeller etc. transformative business leaders?  The five core competencies model starts in the opposite direction.  Based on a solid century of psychological and psychoanalytic research and theory, the model describes the fundamental capacities of a strong, mature, wise, trustworthy, healthy adult human being.  Let’s start there in selecting our leaders.

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