Summary. This article explains the importance of finding the right type of leader for the right kind of problem. In doing so it makes an analogical link between athletes and their sports, and leaders and their teams.

When I was younger, I used to be heavily involved in a number of sports, one of which was Karate. During this time, I found myself in the Australian team for Shotokan Karate and would later represent my country in the World Championships. Years would pass and I would find myself in the Australian Army serving in the Infantry (foot soldiers). This too would prove to be a very physically challenging profession. After having a discussion with my father, the topic of what it meant to be ‘fit’ was raised. My father, who has always been involved in competitive sport and leadership, very aptly pointed out that the term ‘fit’ was a relative term and is entirely specific on the task to be completed. This contradicted my limited definition of the term ‘fit’ which I held at the time.

It took me many years to fully conceptualise the utility of what my father had taught me. Furthermore, the concept of being ‘fit for purpose’ has now extended its efficacy into many other areas in my life including:

  • Leadership
  • Understanding of Intelligence
  • Management
  • Processes
  • People
  • Strategy
  • Projects

What Does It Mean To Be Fit?

If I were to ask someone what it means to be ‘fit’ they will immediately conjure up an image of what it means to them. The only assurance we have is that the more people you ask, the more definitions of what fitness means will be provided. For example:

Some people might interpret fitness as being lean, thin and muscular. But what if I challenged that paradigm with an example of a Sumo wrestler, who aims to be as heavy as humanly possible in order to resist their opponent forcing them from the ring? Please note, in Japan Sumo wrestlers are idolised as sporting gods.

Some people might consider flexibility a key facet of being fit and will go on to envisage pilates & yoga instructors, and gymnasts. But what if we challenged this by using the example of body builders who aim to grow as much lean muscle and mass as possible at the expense of much of their flexibility. Are they not fit for their purpose?

Some people might consider endurance to be a key characteristic of fitness, but then we could go on to use examples of power lifters or 100m sprinters in order to challenge that theory.

The term fitness is only relative to the task and scenario at hand and is completely different in each circumstance. The same can be said for other topics like leadership and intelligence.

The term ‘fit’ or ‘fitness’ in this context translates to suitability, utility and functionality.

Being Fit For Purpose – Leadership & Intelligence

My team at The Eighth Mile Consulting often work with organisations in developing their leadership and project capabilities. In doing so, one thing has become reinforced time again. Different tasks, environments and strategies require different styles of leadership. Now some of you are probably reading this and thinking ‘no duh’ but I would challenge you to think back through your professional career and remember how many times you have seen it go wrong. It might have manifested with:

  • The wrong type of personality being forcibly placed within a team resulting in poor morale, miscommunication and high staff turnover.
  • The decision to have a generalist leader in a role that would have been better supported by a specialist of some type. Or vice versa.
  • A risk averse or ‘move away’ styled leader being placed in a position requiring large-scale change management and strategy realignment.

The list goes on…

Suitability is a crucial point that is often overlooked. Too often we are building teams and focusing almost exclusively on people’s past experience or their tertiary qualifications, when history has proven that some of the most influential leaders of our time would never have received a look in had they been forced to go through the same process. Furthermore, many organisations are hiring leaders without having a good understanding of what it is they want them to achieve. This is often because time has not yet been invested into developing a longer-term strategy that will assist in the delivery of subordinating projects or expectations. Even the best leaders will struggle to get wins without a unified strategy or overarching direction. It is a battle that is arguably lost before it has even started.

It is quite often that we hear someone has been placed in a position because they are ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’. This topic opens up an equally complicated can of worms in so far that there are many different types of intelligence (IQ, EQ, Social intelligence, etc), further exacerbated by the next questions, ‘what do you need achieved by the position’, and ‘how do you measure it?’. Most people would agree that people who are intelligent in one area are often lacking in other areas. Many studies have been conducted in order to determine the exact correlation between IQ and EQ with varying conclusions. What we can say relatively confidently in the meantime is that most people’s strengths often lie towards a bias of one over another.

The point is that people are often very effective when placed in the right type of role, and terribly ineffective if placed in the wrong one. The effects when we get it wrong are teams that are disjointed, confused, unfocused, and ultimately ineffective.

The implications are disastrous when we have:

  • A poor understanding of the organisational problem we are aiming to fix
  • No communicated expectations for an incoming leader or important position
  • No overarching strategy or direction for them to align to
  • A willingness to hire a like-for-like replacement of the previous leader, without considering if it is an opportunity to test a new leadership style or approach

Unfortunately, this investment in determining what we want them to do, and how we want them to do it, is often an afterthought. It is like trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. One could reasonably argue that the time and resources could be better invested by finding multiple round pegs (candidates) and comparing which one is best for our round hole (our problem/need). But it all rests on an assumption that we have invested the time to determine it is a round hole in the first place.

It is morally difficult to get angry at a leader who has been placed in a position, but then be hamstrung by a lack of direction, expectations, and resources. This is not fair or reasonable on the leader, or their teams.

The Way Forward

Understand the problem and the need

  • What is it you are trying to solve? Why?
  • Is this a people, processes, product or profile problem? Or a mixture of all of these issues?
  • What are the expectations of the leader in terms of the organisation’s time, cost and quality outputs?

Understand the leadership effect you are after

  • What type of leader are you after? And, why?
  • Someone who jumps in the trenches and can get stuck in the detail?
  • Someone who can re-link back with strategy?
  • Someone who has a high level of technical, governance and risk experience?
  • Someone who will gel with other members of the team and focus on raising morale?
  • What is the priority personality trait we are seeking?
  • Do we want someone who is not afraid to challenge the way we have always done things? Or maybe not…

Professionally develop your staff

No one is perfect. Even the best leaders have gaps in their knowledge or approaches. It is the responsibility of an organisation to work with their leaders in order to professionally develop and mitigate against known and agreed upon deficiencies. This can look like:

  • Additional education
  • Time designated for professional development or informal education
  •  Allocation of a mentor or coach
  • A budget allocation designated for education gaps.

Note that professional development should not always be geared towards what an individual wants to do, but towards what the team needs. I remember having completed many courses and qualifications that I would rather have not done because the team needed me to do so in order to cover an organisational capability gap.

Be careful to not recreate the same conditions and expect a different result

Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If the reason you are hiring a leader is because the last one was unsuccessful in achieving the desired results, be careful before:

  • Hiring someone with the same characteristics, traits or style.
  • Hiring someone because they remind you of yourself.
  • Hiring someone and then providing them with the same limited resources and investment you provided the last leader.
  • Hiring someone because they are less likely to push back against the hierarchy. Sometimes you might need this in order to fix the root cause of the original issue, which might in fact be the senior leadership of the organisation.
  • The list goes on…

Do not confuse technical problems with people problems

Many organisations make the mistake of confusing system or technical problems with people problems. What looks like a technological issue may in fact be a communication issue between sub-organisations or individuals. This in turn, has implications on the way we hire in response to the business need, resulting in the wrong type of leader being inducted into the wrong team and situation. If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to read an article I wrote previously titled ‘Change Management: It’s All About The Humans’.

In closing I would like to reference a term we regularly used in the military which I believe rings true to this topic, ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. Meaning the time spent understanding what the problem is and what/who we need to address the issue is time well invested. Do not underestimate the significance of conducting timely and accurate analysis, and then translating it into a viable and deliverable plan for execution.

If you enjoyed this article, I would encourage you to see some of our other works on our blog.