Picking Good Leaders – a review

A review of  Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? by Cohn and Moran

In a recent survey 70% of Americans indicated they believe that we are suffering from a crisis of leadership, but rather than asking why our leaders are failing, the authors of this book believe we should ask, ”Why aren’t we choosing better leaders?”

Jeffrey Cohn, the former Director of  Research at Yale’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute and Jay Moran, the Managing Director of the Leadership and Innovation Assessment Group wrote a book published by Josey-Bass in 2011 entitled, Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? – A better way to evaluate leadership potential.

This is a research-based selection criteria for leadership selection by two experts in the field. Those on either side of the leadership selection process might do well to study this material carefully. The authors believe that there are seven attributes of a great leader.


Definition – honesty, consistency and solid ethics. “Leaders who possess integrity follow up on their promises. They match words with deeds. They eschew deception. They treat people consistently and apply rules evenly. Finally, leaders with integrity don’t unfairly jeopardize others in order to advance their own agendas.”

Assessment – In addition to a 360-degree referencing and traditional interview, they recommend posing a hypothetical case to test for ethical awareness in a case where no clear rules or boundaries exist. “We ask candidates to read a short case containing a potential problem. We also give them some background information and key facts or ideas to consider. We then ask the candidate how she might go about addressing the situation. Our goal is to gain a better understanding of how the leader thinks about a potential ethical dilemma.” By asking the same question of each candidate, a benchmark with which to compare the candidates is established.


Definition – good social awareness and the ability to respond to the emotional signals received.

Assessment – The first indicator is from the 360-degree feedback. They probe with questions that give them a good sense about the candidate’s ability to listen. They then put the candidate into a role play scenario that poses tough interpersonal dynamics. “This is one of the best ways to observe in real time a candidates social intelligence.”

Emotional Intelligence

Definition – self knowledge, self control, and taking advantage of opportunities for self improvement.

Assessment – The candidate’s subordinates, peers, and former bosses are interviewed in “slices.” They ask open-ended questions to discover in general whether the candidate is aware of how he comes across to others.  They then use a case study to simulate a real-life situation that the candidate might face. “The key is to ensure that the challenge falls outside of the candidate’s comfort zone but feels and actually is ‘real’ and ‘important.’ ” After giving an initial answer, the candidate is given additional information about the case and asked to reconsider. The assessment for emotional intelligence hinges on whether the candidate can adjust their thinking based upon new information and revise their stance if necessary. The candidate with low emotional intelligence will stubbornly cling to the original answer.


Definition – the ability to create a compelling organizational velocity and direction.

Assessment – During the interview they probe for examples of a time when the candidates were able to imagine a solution to a problem when others had reached a dead end. They also look for candidates who are skilled at articulating a theme. The candidates should draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources and experiences. “If they use powerful language and demonstrate how their career is part of an overall theme, this is indicative of someone who has vision. Likewise, if they are adept at articulating how others (colleagues, potential partners, customers) fit into their overall mission, we are more likely to conclude that they will carry a compelling voice with them in a new position.”


Definition – ability to make good decisions based upon sound logic and a variety of experiences.

Assessment – For this characteristic the candidate is given custom-tailored case studies that reflect real issues in the candidate’s organization. Again, the object is to stretch the candidate beyond his or her comfort zone in order to determine how they think on their feet. Can they determine the real problem? Can they identify hidden agendas? Are they thinking about future consequences?


Definition – emotional commitment to what one is doing, to one’s core values, or in the value of one’s organizational mission. Courage is an emotional commitment because it involves actions that might not seem logical in terms of short-term payoffs.

Assessment – There are three indicators (1) Is he or she committed to core values and centered emotionally? (2) Can he or she navigate uncertainty? And (3) Does he or she have patience? Delving into these questions they are searching for what kind of calculus does the candidate use to weigh all the different variables with a promotion and perhaps a career on the line. Are quick answers sought in preference to nuanced responses? Does the candidate possess a reliable moral compass that permits them to act appropriately when the stakes are high?


Definition – personal drive to achieve, to learn, and to master the deepest aspirations.

Assessment – Personal interview questions seek to identify the candidate’s purpose and motivation. “A candidate who possesses passion along with the six other attributes, is most likely to make a strong and lasting impact on any organization.”

The authors explain in detail how to secure appropriate leadership. A solid piece of scholarship well worth the read.

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