How to be perceived as a real leader

By Neil Patrick

Leadership is the number one competency employers seek today – but how can you prove you have it?

I've been investigating the data about the most desirable competencies employers are seeking today. Here is's list of the top 10 professional attributes that employers want to see in their employees, in order of importance:

1. Leadership skills

2. Interpersonal skills

3. Problem-solving skills

4. Self-motivation

5. Efficient

6. Detail-oriented

7. The ability to prioritize

8. Team player

9. Reliable

10. The ability to multitask

The list wasn’t particularly surprising. I suspect most people could second guess most of this even if it might be a little harder to guess the exact priority order the data reveals.

But the question this prompted in my mind was:

“If leadership skills are the most desirable competency, how can an employer discover what an applicant’s true leadership skills are and more importantly, fairly assess and rank competing candidates against this criteria?”

Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama in 2014 by Pete Souza 

Mike Sweeny at MAS Recruiting provides this answer to the question:

Organizations use a variety of assessment tests and/or tools to attempt to determine leadership as well as other personality traits in candidates. Overall, the results are very mixed.

Recruiting is not an exact science. You can't "test" your way to hiring people with strong leadership skills. I advise your hiring team to focus on a candidate's leadership track record. Ask each candidate to relate how they demonstrated leadership in various scenarios during their job history. Prior to the interview, have your team develop specific examples that relate to the job at hand. For example, the position being interviewed for may be a production supervisor in a manufacturing facility that has a poor quality record. During the interview session, have your team probe candidates to discuss their history at solving similar problems.

Past work history, combined with solid reference checking, is the best way to hire people with leadership skills. Assessment test may provide additional data to help in your hiring decision, but they are no substitute for probing past work history.

Fair enough, but this approach has several weaknesses:

1. Only candidates selected for interview are assessed against the number one competency

2. The measures are subjective and not quantifiable

3. References are unlikely to be able or willing to provide a great deal of reliable data on this characteristic, they after all are unlikely to have any data which records, let alone quantifies their employees’ leadership skills.

So job seekers are left with a quandary:

The number one most desirable personal attribute has no independent meaningful measure attached to it. And this means there is little we can do to provide independent verification of our leadership competencies.

To look at this in another way, there is no way currently in which HR and recruiters can reliably measure candidates against their most desired attribute.

This is a catastrophe. Especially when we consider that real leaders are not usually those who shout the loudest about themselves. The greatest leaders influence not by shock and awe tactics, but by a consistent influence, inspiring those around them by their behaviours and attitudes in a humble and collaborative way.

But there’s good news. Things are changing and they are the greatest opportunity yet for employees to demonstrate their leadership in a way that no-one can ignore.

Time and again, it is repeated that job seeking is a sales and marketing job, and the most successful candidates approach it in this way.

The rise and rise of digital and social media and ‘big data’ (I promise that’s the last time I’ll mention that in this post) are at last reshaping how HR and recruiters approach their hiring processes.

This revolution is having profound impacts. And it has given rise to something that it’s of immense value to marketers and job seekers alike.

It’s called social proof.

Businesses now use this all the time to prove their credibility in their online and offline marketing. The types of proof vary according to the nature of the business. And the immense value of social proof is deployed within the marketing tactics of most leading businesses today.

Hotels and restaurants covet their user ratings on online media. Writers seek favorable reviews of their books on Amazon. And at a more personal level, we all wish to achieve and retain a good feedback score from our buyers on Ebay.

The huge value of social proof resides in that it reflects what others think of us, not what we say or think about ourselves.

HR and recruiters are at last waking up to the potential this unlocks for them to get better and more quantifiable insight about candidates.

And it’s not rocket science to work out what this means.

Let’s work through a simple example. Faced with two otherwise identical candidates, which person would you assess as having the greater leadership skills?

Person A

  • LinkedIn : 800 connections, 12 recommendations and 250 endorsements
  • Twitter : Following 300 people, followed by 1500 people
  • Klout score : 60

Person B

  • LinkedIn : 200 connections, 1 recommendation and 30 endorsements
  • Twitter : Following 750 people, followed by 150
  • Klout score : 35

At this point I am sure that some of you will be howling in protest along the lines of, “these measures are unreliable and misleading because…” (place your protest of choice here).

And I would probably agree with your arguments assuming they relate to the facts that these measures are all prone to weakness and exploitation or gaming.

But I’d remind you of my opening point:

Presently there is no measure of leadership that is helping recruiters and employers reliably assess, measure and compare candidates against their expressed number one competency – leadership.

Yes the metrics I have selected are flawed. Yes they can be manipulated – (if you spend a really long time doing so) and yes they don’t tell the whole story.

But in the absence of anything better, what will employers do? My prediction is that these metrics will become more and more important. And therefore we ignore them at our peril.

As I have said repeatedly here and elsewhere, there’s no quick fix. The only way to capitalize on this situation for employees and job seekers is to invest steadily in building your online profile.

And for most of us this means a fundamental reassessment of how we prioritize our daily tasks. Yes it’s another thing to add to your already too long to do list. Yes it won’t deliver instant results. But it’s the only way you’ll become person A instead of person B.

Like it or not, your whole career future may hinge on this.

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