The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Competence vs “Leadership Qualities”

The HBR recently posted an interview with some social scientists at Erasmus and Stanford about what is more predictive of team success – leaders with actual expertise, leaders without expertise, or more democratic groups without leaders.

The outcomes are not surprising. Often teams do not actually nominate experts as leaders, and instead nominate people who are taller, louder, or male-er. Teams that *did* nominate experts tended to do better on a task. And while the expert lead teams beat democratic or leaderless teams, democratic teams beat teams who had nominated an incompetent leader.

I think the confirmation that without objective measures, people tend to pick the wrong man for the job (and it’s almost always a man they pick). Moreover, expertise does matter in leaders – authoritarian leaders who are incompetent will lead teams astray compared to those that are competent. But I think the comparison between authoritarian or traditional hierarchies and democratic teams may have some nuance to pick out that this interview doesn’t properly identify.

The key is understanding the task they asked students to accomplish. This was a traditional ‘team building’ task where teams were told they had survived an airplane crash over the sea, and had to identify items that would help them survive on a deserted island. Their choices were compared to actual experts and the teams decision making prowess were judged on how well they lined up.

The research showed that in many cases, experts with actual knowledge of survival were not always chosen by the group to lead the process. In many cases, people who simply claimed the loudest they knew the answers were chosen instead.

But more importantly, the research glossed over an important point. Why was a team deciding these options in the first place? We assume we form teams because two heads are better than one, but is that actually the case in this exercise? Indeed, given that the researchers are comparing the team’s choices to other *individual experts*, they seem to be implying this is a task that individuals could do as competently as a team, maybe even more competently. So naturally, teams that rendered teamwork negligible – i.e., teams who nominated an authoritarian expert – did little more than try their best to emulate an individual. Those teams did the best, when they nominated someone competent.

Comparing teams who’s best strategy for the task at hand is to act like an individual to teams set up explicitly to make this strategy harder (flat or democratic teams) will of course do better when someone competent is at the helm.

But what about tasks where acting like an individual is not the best strategy? What if instead of merely choosing the items for survival, teams were tasked with designing a survival kit with those items with a successful marketing plan, then write a computer program on how to teach a robot hand to wield some of the items? These open ended meta-tasks, which end up generally consisting of one or more drastically different types of sub-tasks, are much more common in the real world.

I’d wager in *these* cases, democratic leadership would be more successful. This is because for each subtask, expertise shifts from person to person. In fact, this is the really selling point of heterarchy – the expert for *this* job is often not the same as the expert for the *last* job. Indeed, I’d wager in addition that not-so-democratic teams who’s leaders took it upon themselves to nurture expertise and mediate the team’s decision making process to actively fight against cognitive biases that lead teams to generally follow the male-est of their members would do even better than the pure democratic teams.

The take away from this theory would be that yes, competence in a leader matters. But so do emotional intelligence and rationality in terms of their ability to mediate team disputes and not be pulled into the same politics as the rest of the team. And so do a focus on growth and talent management – if you need more than one expert, then a good leader coaches those experts.


November 5, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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