How to identify 21st century leaders

26 January 2016 By Rob Davidson, Davidson Founder and Director of Growth

AS the Age of Exponential Growth takes hold, the rate of change in most organisations is escalating at breakneck speed.

Exceptional leadership has always been a scarce commodity, yet it has never been more vital.

According to the recently retired CEO of Cisco, John Chambers, more than 40 per cent of companies will not exist in any meaningful way, in ten years from today.

Such is the impact of new technologies, many of these businesses will have been replaced by digital versions of themselves.

There is no shortage of dialogue on leadership with Amazon now offering a staggering 10,000 books on the subject, yet in this volatile, uncertain complex and ambiguous environment (VUCA) what are the non-negotiable qualities organisations should insist upon when hiring or promoting leaders?

Of the various competencies touted as the 21st century silver bullets to leadership success, the two that stand out as having the greatest potential impact are curiosity and grit.

It’s simply not possible to conceive how an organisation can adapt, grow, change and reinvent itself in order to meet the new world order without a team of curious leaders.

Curious people by their very nature seek to understand new ways of operating and are not afraid to change the status quo.

Grit or perseverance is the key ingredient that turns the curious leader’s learnings into tangible outcomes.

Knowledge without outcomes is an act of gluttony. The margin for error in the VUCA is so slim that organisations can’t afford to embrace leaders who simply want to get fat on knowledge.

Twenty-first century leadership excellence requires both knowledge of what to do and the discipline or grit to implement those learnings.

It is surprising then to find that very few companies probe deeply on these aspects when interviewing for senior leadership roles.  How can CEOs and boards better identify and select curious leaders who rate highly in grit?

Tips for identifying curiosity

Genuinely curious people are driven to learn. It’s as though constant learning is who they are, not what they do. To identify this quality in candidates:

  1. Ask for examples of the most significant skill they have acquired in the past year. It does not have to be a work-related skill, perhaps it is a hobby or a language. Curious people in my experience, are constantly learning in all domains of their life.
  2. Ask about their reading habits. Good leaders are readers. It is rare to find a curious person who does not read widely. Research consistently shows that top leaders read significantly more than the average person. For example, Fortune 500 company CEOs have been shown to read four-to-five books a month. Therefore, ask for examples of what books the candidate has read this year and what their main learnings have been. How have they applied these learnings and with what tangible outcomes?
  3. Look for evidence of conferences or webinars they have attended. Operationally focused leaders tend to make the excuse that they are too busy to attend these events, whereas curious leaders prioritise the time to learn.


Tips for identifying grit

A psychologist and researcher at Penn, Angela Duckworth, has published widely on this topic.

Duckworth’s research suggests that grit may well be the one trait to rule them all. The good news is that Duckworth has demonstrated that grit can be reliably measured with a short survey that measures consistency of passions (eg. ‘I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time, but later lost interest’) and consistency of effort (eg.‘Setbacks don’t discourage me’) over time.

When interviewing to probe grit, you may try asking questions designed to establish that:

  1. The candidate can demonstrate where they have consistently and successfully delivered large and complex projects, which required high levels of persistence and resilience in order to complete.
  2. This quality permeates their personal as well as their professional life. It is interesting to note that practices such as a disciplined physical exercise routine or a regular mindfulness practice have been shown not only to indicate grit, but also may actually build this quality. Questions designed to elicit an understanding of how grit may be seen in all facets of the candidate’s life are useful.
  3. The candidate can demonstrate examples of where they have displayed courage in the pursuit of their goals. The amount of courage you have is directly proportional to your level of grit. Significant goals are always accompanied by significant obstacles and on occasion, significant battles. Gritty people do not shy away from conflict when it is in the service of achieving a goal that matters to them.

Imagine, for one moment, the difference it would make to your organisation in the year ahead if the ranks of your leadership team were filled with curious individuals who were determined to find a better way of operating and had the tenacity to deliver on that vision?


Rob Davidson is the Director of Growth and founder of Davidson, which is a leading recruitment and HR consulting business with offices in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland.