Why It’s Important To Consider Leaders For What They Can Contribute, Not Just What They’ve Done

Manavi Agarwal

Last Updated: January 3, 2024
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Fifty years down the road from The Peter Principle, and guess what? The truth bomb it dropped is still making waves. Laurence J. Peter spilled the tea: many of us end up in roles we’re not quite superhero-level at. Why? Because promotions often happen based on what we’ve done, not what we could do. In this blog, we’re peeling back the layers of this age-old issue. It’s time for organisations to hit the refresh button and start looking at leaders through a different lens. Let’s see why it’s important to consider leaders for what they can contribute, not just what they’ve done.


Skills For Leadership, Not Just Performance

In the dynamic world of leadership, distinguishing between effective individual contributors and potential leaders is crucial. Research from the Harvard Business Review emphasises the critical distinction between skills for individual performance and those required for effective leadership. While individual contributors often excel in technical skills and self-management, leadership demands a broader range of character traits. It goes beyond the ability to perform tasks; effective leaders must exhibit high levels of integrity and minimal dark-side behaviours rooted in negative attributes like narcissism or psychopathy. The challenge lies in understanding that the skills that make someone an outstanding performer in their current role might not necessarily translate into effective leadership. Therefore, when evaluating candidates, organisations must consider both the candidate’s technical competence and their potential to adapt, learn, and foster collaboration within a team.

  • Adaptability is Key: Leaders need to adapt and evolve continually. Too much expertise in a specific area may lead to a fixed mindset, hindering adaptability.
  • Openness to Learning: Great leaders remain open to new ideas and perspectives, regardless of their experience. This ability to learn ensures their continued success.
  • Balance of Technical Competence: While technical competence is crucial, an excessive focus on one area can limit a leader’s ability to navigate complex situations and diverse teams.

Measuring Trust In Performance Metrics

Performance metrics traditionally rely on subjective ratings, often from direct line managers, leaving them susceptible to bias and political influences. The question of trust arises concerning these individual performance measures, as they may not accurately represent an individual’s true capabilities. This is particularly relevant in the context of gender bias, where studies indicate that women are promoted less often than men, even when their performance is identical. Organisations must recognise the limitations of such metrics and explore more objective, peer-based evaluations to ensure fair and accurate assessments of leadership potential. A comprehensive analysis featured in the HBR highlights the vulnerability of traditional performance metrics. The study reveals that subjective ratings, often a common measure of individual performance, are susceptible to bias, politics, and an employee’s ability to manage upwards. 

  • Objective Evaluations: Incorporating peer-based evaluations helps counteract biases associated with subjective ratings.
  • Gender Neutrality: Implementing gender-neutral performance measures ensures equal opportunities for promotion based on merit.
  • Periodic Review: Regularly reviewing and updating performance metrics helps maintain their relevance and effectiveness.

Looking Forward, Not Backward

Predicting future success is the cornerstone of selecting great leaders. Relying on past achievements to determine leadership potential can be misleading, especially in today’s rapidly changing business landscape. This requires organisations to shift their focus from rewarding historical accomplishments to identifying individuals who exhibit the qualities needed to navigate growing complexity, uncertainty, and change. Forward-looking organisations are better equipped to identify leaders who may have a different profile from those who succeeded in the past but possess the qualities necessary for future success.

  • Agility is Crucial: Future leaders must be agile and adaptable to navigate evolving challenges.
  • Diversity of Profiles: Not all successful leaders share the same background or traits. Embracing diversity in leadership profiles ensures varied perspectives.
  • Future-Proofing Leadership: Selecting leaders based on their potential ensures organisations are better prepared for future disruptions.


The Pitfall Of Promoting Culture Fit

While cultural alignment is important, overreliance on it can hinder diversity of thought within an organisation. Traditional notions of cultural fit may perpetuate outdated leadership models, preventing the infusion of fresh perspectives. In a world where businesses are expected to evolve rapidly, organisations must break free from the constraints of a homogeneous leadership approach. This means considering individuals who may not fit the established cultural mould but bring valuable diversity to the leadership table, fostering innovation and resilience in the face of change.

  • Diverse Leadership Models: Embracing diverse leadership models encourages innovative thinking and adaptive strategies.
  • Inclusive Decision-Making: Including leaders with different perspectives ensures well-rounded decision-making.
  • Adaptability: Leaders who may not fit the traditional cultural mould can bring adaptability and a fresh outlook.

Rethinking Leadership Notions

Shifting the focus from competence to potential signifies a paradigm shift in leadership considerations. Organisations need to redefine leadership by considering ambition, reputation, and passion for the business. This requires looking beyond an individual’s current readiness for a leadership role and assessing their long-term potential to contribute to the organisation’s growth. Leaders with high potential often exhibit qualities that go beyond current job performance, demonstrating a passion for learning, adaptability, and a forward-thinking approach.

  • Assessing Ambition: Ambitious individuals often display the drive to take on challenges and grow within the organisation.
  • Reputation Matters: A positive reputation, built on integrity and collaboration, is indicative of a leader’s potential for long-term success.
  • Passion for the Business: Leaders who are genuinely passionate about the business are more likely to contribute to its sustained growth.

Leadership Beyond Competence

Rethinking leadership involves acknowledging that a flawless track record does not guarantee effective leadership. Successful leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs challenge the conventional narrative by showcasing that high potential, agility, and ambition can often surpass a traditional track record. This perspective encourages organisations to identify and nurture leaders who may not have the most outstanding current performance but exhibit qualities that align with the organisation’s vision and future goals.

  • Potential for Growth: Leaders with high potential demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow, making them valuable assets for future challenges.
  • Agility Trumps Experience: Agility and adaptability often outshine extensive experience in dynamic business environments.
  • Innovation Over Tradition: Leaders with a focus on innovation and fresh perspectives contribute to the organisation’s ability to navigate change effectively.


Becoming A Leader

In essence, the crux of leadership lies not just in what has been accomplished but in the potential to drive future success. Organisations must evolve their approach, recognising leaders for what they can contribute, embracing diversity of thought, and acknowledging that those who may not fit the traditional mould can play pivotal roles in steering companies toward their goals. It’s time to shift the focus from the Peter Principle’s inevitable incompetence to a paradigm where leadership thrives on untapped potential and the ability to navigate the uncharted waters of the future.

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