Criteria For Leader Selection: Don’t veer off course when you pick your next leader

In this article, find out how three easy-to-detect characteristics can serve as a simple screen when selecting leaders. Determine if your leadership candidate is eligible for more in-depth interviews by initially assessing whether they have a track record of demonstrating respect, providing clarity, and holding themselves and others accountable. Elaborate interview guides and competency scoring to the decimal point are a waste of time unless you first screen for these “table stakes” behaviors.

Rumble strips on highways make a crazy thumping noise that grabs a driver’s attention and warns:  you’re straying—take corrective action!  I wish we had a mind-rattling mechanism like that when we pick leaders in organizations.

We’re not short of information about leadership. There are academic papers, case studies, fables, surveys, TED talks, leadership conferences, executive education, white papers, competencies galore, info-graphics, blogs, and videos till the cows come home.

Has any of this helped?

The correct lens to use for that question is employee engagement—because leaders lead and achieve results through their employees.

According to Gallup the 2018 rate of employee engagement in the U.S. was 34%. What about the other 66% of employees? They were not engaged (clock-punchers) or actively disengaged (organizational saboteurs).

Too few leaders understand or act on the clear link between employee engagement and business outcomes.

Too few boards and other decision-makers understand or act on the clear link between employee engagement (or lack thereof) and leaders. If leaders are not able to produce the benefits of an engaged workforce—let’s choose different leaders.  

Leaders can create great work environments. But leaders can also diminish people, erode respect, and destroy discretionary effort.  Leaders make or break employee engagement.

The ocean of information about leadership has failed to transform leaders and failed to transform how leaders are picked in the first place.

Matthew Lieberman in Harvard Business Review (Should Leaders Focus on Results or People) states that leaders are perceived as excellent when they demonstrate strong performance in both results-based behaviors and social behaviors.

Results based behaviors include strong analytic skills and a drive to solve problems.

Social behaviors include communication and empathy.

So, leaders are very highly rated if they have both, but if they only have one of the traits it is much less likely they will be seen as excellent.

What percentage of leaders DO have both?

David Rock, in a blog titled Why Organizations Fail and the Management Research Group found that the percentage of leaders with both is LESS THAN ONE PERCENT.


But it is also gratifying to have data corroborating the experience of millions of people.  Little wonder that year after year only a minority of Americans are engaged at work.  Leaders and managers create the culture that allows their teams to be engaged. If the leader or manager does not create a healthy culture it is a wretched waste for people and for business outcomes.

Here’s the damage when we pick ineffective leaders: employee turnover that guts the talent in the company and erodes profits, poor business results, poor service scores, compensation packages unrelated to performance and divorced from fiduciary responsibility, discrimination, silos, sabotage, cynicism, bullying, financial insecurity, lost opportunities, and negative health effects.

All too often, when it is time to select a new leader, the selection process veers off course.  Whether it’s a decision about who should be promoted to be the office manager– or it’s a national CEO search– the recruiting and selecting process fails. Confident, notably ambitious, self-promoting people make themselves irresistible while kind, hard-working, mission-driven people go unrecognized.

Worse yet—they go un-promoted.

Worst of all—they leave. This concentrates a culture of negativity even more and shrinks the leadership talent pool.

We run off the road when we pick leaders. There’s a lofty destination but somewhere in the process we forget to screen for the most basic characteristics. Characteristics that are easy to detect and critical to a leader’s success.

This is why you must install an early warning system—some rumble strips—into your leadership selection process.

The big three are respect, clarity, and accountability.

These are derived from the interpersonal motivators CARB (Clarity, Autonomy, Respect and Belonging) and they are table stakes for the two traits Lieberman described which link to excellence (results-based behaviors and social behaviors). Screen for these three easily identifiable behaviors before moving on to any fancy interview guide. If you detect that a candidate for leadership strays from these essential behaviors then you must reassess your current trajectory.

Respect, clarity, and accountability are screening criteria as opposed to the role-specific “competencies” that preoccupy selection committees. Too often selection committees skip over simple standards of behavior. Don’t fall into that trap—the deep dive into competencies such as “fosters innovation” or “strategizes five years into the future” can certainly wait until you determine if they treat people with respect. You will not have a successful new leader unless that person is able and willing to be clear, to be respectful to all, and to hold herself and others accountable.

How to Keep these Three Critical Behaviors Front of Mind

Let’s surface the right conversations in our team meetings, in the C-suite, and at the Board table. Let’s arm people with a rationale for speaking up before a selection process veers into the ditch. Let’s encourage co-workers to push the workplace heroes forward for promotion. If we stir up conversations about basic leader behaviors that link to excellence it will put a spotlight on the behaviors that make our lives and our organizations better. Here are some strategies:

  • Discuss the three critical behaviors at your team meetings: whether it is a morning huddle with the nurses—or the weekly C-Suite meeting.
  • Have a discussion about what the behaviors look like in your setting. Get input from everyone. Memorialize (chart pad and transcribe) the highlights.
  • Talk about what it looks like when someone isn’t respectful, clear, or accountable. (Hard to overstate what a useful exercise this is!)
  • Use these three as screening criteria right off the bat when you begin to think about promoting someone.
  • If you’re not at the decision-making level: instigate discussions about these criteria vis-à-vis who is (and isn’t) being considered for top jobs.
  • Push, plead, and pester the board to screen with these criteria. Ask them to solicit feedback about a candidate’s respect, clarity, and accountability when selecting a new CEO.
  • Whenever there is a manager or leader selection process offer your opinion and encourage your colleagues to offer their opinions about the presence or absence of these traits.

The purpose is to improve the performance of people who supervise others. This will reduce harm and increase health in our organizations. And the next thing you know—good people will unleash their talent and genius at work.


This is an early warning system and a reminder of critical behaviors to use before diving into role-specific competencies, criteria and credentials. 

Leaders in our organization: 

  1. Treat others with respect. They make an effort to keep people at all levels out of a “threat”  Their direct reports in particular feel they are treated with respect. 
  2. Provide clarity.  Their direct reports and others know what is expected of them at work. They are clear about expectations, goals, and meaning. 
  3. Hold themselves and others accountable to do what they said they would do. They don’t drop the ball. They follow through with others to get things done and they have the tough conversations when needed.  
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Patty Fahy

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