Is Leadership Subjective?
Is leadership subjective? Is it completely different for everybody, with no objective standards—just whatever anyone says it is?
If this were true, if leadership was merely subjective, there would be no way to identify, develop, or evaluate leaders—no way to hold them accountable or raise the bar on their behavior and performance.
This is clearly not the case. And yet, unfortunately, some executives still claim that leadership is subjective and then use that as an excuse stop investment in leadership development—or even discussing it.
Don’t let this misguided objection derail strategic discussion about what leadership means to your organization, e.g., standards of leadership performance, how to identify and develop leaders, and aligning leadership development with vision, strategy, and values.
In other blogs I talk about the value of leadership and measuring the value of leadership development. In this blog, I want to respond specifically to the question of subjectivity. It is possible and necessary to deconstruct all of the major terminology here, especially the sloppy and superficial distinction between “subject and object” or “subjective and objective.” Instead, I am going to push the discussion from a practical perspective, namely, how to respond to the misguided objection that leadership is subjective. These are answers that I myself have given, in one form or another.
“Yes, leadership is subjective: we need your experience, expertise, and judgment; we need your relationships, initiative, and innovation; we need your thoughts, opinions, and instincts. If we didn’t, you would be replaced by a calculator.”
In an important sense, leadership is subjective, and that is not a bad thing. We need everyone on our team thinking about how we can develop talent even better, which competencies we need to develop, and how we can best leverage the skills that we have. And while opinions will differ, and no absolute answers will ever be discovered, leaders have no choice but to work together to hammer out a common leadership platform, i.e., find some common ground in how they define leadership excellence. A common leadership platform makes it possible to recruit, develop, and evaluate leaders, and to audit the impact of leadership behavior on individual, team, and organizational performance.
The lack of objective absolutes, the difficulty of making decisions without all the information, and of taking action in complex situations, is part of what makes leadership so challenging and exciting.
Conclusion: don’t wait until the world is perfect to take your next step; don’t wait for an absolute definition of leadership before challenging yourself to become a better leader; and don’t reject all of the qualitative or subjective elements of leadership.
“But leadership is not merely subjective. There are many important objective elements.” Here are several example—layers of objectivity.
Goals and metrics.
- Research: First, it is wise to study the research on leadership and leadership development. What kind of leadership styles, behaviors, approaches, competencies, etc., are correlated with and causally linked to improvements in productivity, business results, and market capitalization? There is a lot of good research out there, and we should all have a better understanding of the value of good leadership, the costs of poor leadership, and best practices in general.
- Audits: Do your own research: With respect to leadership in your own organization, what’s working best; what isn’t working as well; what improvements can be made—where can we raise the bar? You need to assess both the leaders themselves (behavior and results) and leadership development (what impact it is having).
- Goals: Any time we set goals for our leaders, clarify standards of performance, set new expectations, or raise the bar, we are adding layers of objectivity to the discussion. Goals for leadership often include behavioral expectations, core values, and key performance indicators, all of which, when well crafted, can be observable or measurable, and thus scientifically or objectively verifiable and valid.
- Statements and reports: Most organizations have a whole series of measurement tools that provide objective standards of performance, serve as the basis for decision making, and are used to measure the health and success of the organization. These include financial statements, customer surveys, employee engagement surveys, performance evaluations, 360 degree feedback evaluations, and so on. Our leaders are expected to deliver these results, and progress to plan on these metrics is a crucial indicator of leadership performance.
- Talent management strategy: An organization’s leadership needs also provide a layer of objective metrics. What leadership competencies are most strategically relevant; how good do our leaders need to be; where do we need the best talent in our organization? It takes rigorous analysis to deduce and agree on a set of core leadership competencies, define each with concrete behavioral descriptors, and ensure they are aligned with vision, strategy, and values. Since we are sometimes mistaken—analysis is never perfect and the world is always changing—we must regularly audit the accuracy and impact of our leadership platform.
- Leadership by example: The actions of senior leaders send a very powerful message to employees on what is and is not acceptable, desirable, and valued. Their actions provide employees with empirical evidence of how things get done—and apparently should get done—in the organization. How leaders coach and mentor employees, and what behaviors they observe, track, discuss, develop, etc., all provide important clues to employees, telling employees what is important and valued.
When a leader says to me that these forms, reports, surveys, and assessments are unfair, incomplete, or partial, I immediately agree: “Yes, yes, they are. That’s why I need your help. What should we hold our leaders accountable for; what should we spend the most time helping them achieve; how do you tell the difference between good and great leaders on your team; how do we want our leaders to represent us and how good do we need our leaders to be?”
I use this tactic (agreeing with them) in order engage them in this important conversation—to challenge them rather than letting them opt out with the weak, superficial, and unproductive excuse that leadership is subjective.
At one level, objectivity simply means a shared point of view around something that can be observed or verified. If senior leaders agree on a leadership platform, and make it concrete with behavioral descriptors and a clear set of desired outcomes, and these behaviors and outcomes are observable or verifiable in some way, then they are objective. Objectivity is never absolute, of course, and many subjective judgments will go into creating the leadership platform and into interpreting the behaviors and outcomes we observe.
I often find it useful to show that the charge of subjectivity is fairly easy to overcome even in the most extreme example of subjectivity. The example I like to use here is dealing with a “bad attitude”—this is something almost every manager has experienced and recognizes as a tough qualitative, subjective, touchy-feely kind of issue.
It is pretty easy to demonstrate that dealing with a bad attitude is no different than dealing almost any other regular business project. Think about it. At the end of the day, we have to address an employee’s attitude problem like we address any business project:
- What’s the problem (current behavior and its impact)?
- What’s the goal (what kind of attitude & behavior do we want/need)?
- What are the metrics (how will we know when the employee’s attitude has changed)?
- What’s the plan (what does the employee need to do and how can the manager help)?
- How will you track progress to plan?
How else could you deal with it?
The logic in this example (dealing with a bad attitude) is this: you cannot look into someone’s soul but you can observe their behavior and assess how that behavior impacts their performance and the performance of their colleagues. If you can observe it, it can have objective, empirical validity. So even in this extremely subjective case of dealing with a bad attitude, the dialogue around it can involve many objective elements: goals, metrics, plan of action, coaching, verification, etc.
Quick note on discussing attitude problems: When dealing with employees, I don’t call these challenges “attitude problems.” That kind of language is often taken as a personal attack, it puts people on the defensive, and it shuts down conversation. I pitch these challenges, instead, in terms of opportunities for improvement or a request for change. For example: instead of saying: “Your teamwork sucks,” you can say instead: “I want you to change the way you do teamwork.” This is a much better way to start the conversation. When I want someone to do something big and challenging, I get far better results when I collaborate with them than when they are defending themselves from attack.
I also use the core values analogy for dealing with the charge of subjectivity. Even though some organizations take core values more seriously than others, we all know how important core values are. It is not acceptable to achieve your performance targets by lying to customers, stabbing your colleagues in the back, hiding your mistakes, and fudging the numbers. Organizations and their leaders have very strong expectations around these things because that kind of behavior is not sustainable: it is bad for a company’s reputation and brand; it is harmful to a company’s ability to compete for customers, talent, and capital; and it is damaging to long term success and viability.
Are core values subjective? Can we always tell if a colleague is breaking a core value, e.g., can we always tell if someone is a bad team player or if he is acting without integrity? Sometimes it is hard to tell because we cannot—and don’t want to—observe every employee at every moment. Nor is there a magical vantage point from which we can correctly interpret all behavior. But we do have some pretty concrete standards around our core values, and should we see someone bending them “unethically” or to the detriment of our stakeholders, then we would be forced to take action. As horrible as it is to be put in the position of whistle blower, unethical and illegal behavior puts everyone’s job in jeopardy and, in any case, employees at all levels should be looking for opportunities for improvement. In this sense, dealing with breaches of your organization’s core values is not much different than having to deal with a colleague who is performing terribly.
Behavioral-based descriptors make both core values and leadership competencies far more clear, concrete, and observable, and thus empirical valid. The challenge here is that we do not want to interpret objectivity too superficially either. We live in a world that is not black and white; nor simply shades of grey. We live in a world of color, many colors—and some of those colors even go beyond the range of human perception. What I am saying is this, with any objective observation we still need both objective analysis and subjective judgment. We need to think about intentions and consider context; outcomes and impact; and draw on both logic and gut instinct. Since people are not robots, and since we demand initiative and innovation from our employees, we have no choice but to continually rethink and reevaluate our values based on an ever changing world, organizational learning, and personal growth.
Here are two ways to make this point, gentle and sharp.
A gentle way to make this point is to say: “We need to be able to assess a person’s talent and potential when we interview, hire, and promote, when we do our performance evaluations, when we train, coach, and mentor, and when we lead by example, i.e., when we are deciding what kind of example we want to set as leaders of the organization. In other words, this is an enormous part of running a company, of ensuring everyone is doing their best and that we have the talent we need to get the job done. It may not be easy or absolute, but it is essential.”
Think about this in the negative. This might be too flippant to say to an executive but the logic is very important. To an executive who makes the objection that leadership is subjective, and therefore not worth discussing, one might challenge them in this way: “So are you saying that there is no rigor, method, or logic in how you hire, promote, coach, mentor, or lead by example; that your work in those areas is totally random? And would it make no difference to you whatsoever if we dumped all of the worst leaders in the organization in your department?” I would only consider such a sharp and direct challenge when faced with someone who was being belligerent, disruptive, and disrespectful. It is almost always better to take the high road with respect to internal politics, and I strongly believe that dignity is not negotiable (humiliation is never a legitimate option). Nevertheless, it may happen once or twice in your career that there is no other option than putting a belligerent executive in his place.
The more respectful (and educational) way to make this point: “If we don’t talk about how we are going to build and manage talent, then we are making the mistaken and dangerous assumption that there is no need for rigor, method, or logic in how we hire, promote, coach, mentor or lead by example. It would be negligent for us to assume that our work in talent management can be totally random and disorganized.”
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