Napoleon Spoke the Truth on Developing Talent (Four Limitations as a Leader)

By 8 October 2015 August 22nd, 2019 Behaviours

The other day I came across this quote* from Napoleon:

“The art of appointing men is not nearly so difficult as the art of allowing those appointed to attain their full worth.” 

I’ve never associated Napoleon with being a leader concerned about talent development so much as he was concerned about being the top dog.  Indeed, he achieved the rank of General by age 24 so perhaps this quote belies Napoleon as the impatient talent himself, rather than the developmentally-insightful leader. He was incredibly well-read, and had the unusual combination of being both a strategist and operationally gifted.

From either the perspective of the developmentally-focused leader or the impatient youth, this quote holds truth.

Much has been achieved in assessment methodology since a means to select Allied spies in World War II gave birth to what a great many of my occupational psychologist colleagues owe their bread and butter. There really is no excuse these days not to have a rigorous selection process–from the minimum of behaviourally-based interviews, psychometrics, and reference checks, to the full-blown, external consultancy run, day-in-the-life of an executive, scenario-based assessment centres for more critical hires.

So what is it about “allowing those appointed to attain their full worth” that is so difficult? In an earlier blog posting (How Do You Motivate Staff? Actually you can’t…), I emphasized the importance of developing a self-determined environment where staff have the ABCs–Autonomy, Belonging, and opportunity to increase their Competence.  Easier said than done!  In my work as an executive coach and talent management consultant, I see four ways in which leaders limit those below them from achieving autonomy, belonging and competence.
Four Limitations as a Leader
  • Task orientation to exclusion of Relationship
  • Lack of clarity in communication
  • Perfectionism/high attention to detail
  • Highly affiliative (a strong need to be liked)

What Do These Look Like?

Having one of these Achilles heels doesn’t mean you can not be a good leader, but it does require diligence and most likely a life-long mindfulness of the need to ensure your behaviour is not an indulgence in your limitation. For example, you may be a brilliant strategist and intuitively determine the path forward long before your colleagues have even entered a discussion, but if you don’t make an effort to complement that with asking questions of your colleagues, listening to their responses, genuinely trying to see things from their perspective, and incorporating their ideas into solutions (i.e., tending relationships) you won’t find enough people who are either willing to follow or fully understand the direction you are trying to lead. This is also the case for those with communication challenges, particularly when trying to lead change. Unlike the battlefield, the call to action won’t be executed well in an organisation if the reason behind it isn’t first understood and embraced.

Leaders with a perfectionistic streak can be easy to spot. Depending on the other aspects of personality of these individuals, they may be tolerated by direct reports, particularly if staff see they can learn from the leader and still advance. However, most people have met a perfectionist who gets in the way of meeting deadlines, and/or who strongly criticizes others who invariably fall short of the mark. These de-motivational experiences commonly prompt talented staff to voluntarily seek not just a better leader, but most often an entirely new organisation.

Leaders who acknowledge that their perfectionism is a hindrance to relationships and consequently manage against the more overt demonstration of it, and those who are highly affiliative, can seem unpredictable or even mercurial to staff. For affiliatives, behaviours may include socialising to an inappropriate level with those at a much more junior rank, sharing confidential information to build a bond, and inexplicable wariness toward others. It often seems to others that perfectionists and affiliatives are sending mixed messages. Staff therefore need to have a strong level of flexibility, a thicker skin, and confirm expectations on delegated responsibilities, for starters. All of this takes energy and attention away from attaining one’s own full worth.

Affiliatives often feel excluded from one social group or another. If this is the peer group, they may “hang out” too much in the direct report team. Much of the social limitation that a highly affiliative person may believe she experiences is unconsciously and unintentionally inflicted by others. But it can become self-fulfilling in that when the person feels excluded, their behaviour (e.g., defensiveness, withdrawal, etc.) may indeed lead others to genuinely exclude. The impact to talented staff of an affliliative leader, therefore, is that they too may be excluded from opportunity.  And in extremes, an Us-Them mentality may develop in the team versus the rest of the organisation.

Addressing the Limitations

Exclusive task orientation and lack of clarity in communication are addressed by mindful attention to one’s behaviour with regard to others and their cognitive processing. Once mastered, and with repeated experience of gaining better results, an executive focusing on a relationship or a communication limitation will begin to change his attitude about the importance of including others in the thinking stage, and may even begin to value that process. Coach and client may also do some internal script work in this transition.

Limitations of perfectionism or high affiliation are instead best addressed within one’s own psychological processing. Working with an individual’s internal scripts that inform behaviour is a key component in the coaching, whereas a focus that is primarily behavioural could instead be a distraction from the essential work of client and coach that will enable a transition in leadership.

“Allowing those appointed to attain their full worth” implies getting out of the way of the junior ranks. The above four limitations on leadership can be addressed through individual diligence and potentially additional support through coaching. At the same time, the determination of the talented individual to fulfill her potential, and the organisation’s culture that either hinders or facilitates that fulfillment are also key components.

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures
* Andrew Roberts: Napoleon the Great, Penguin Random House UK, 2015.

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