Since at least the 5th century BC thinkers have wondered about the makeup of human character and the curious combination of “humours” that creates the ideal personality types. But when outfield grasses begin to grow in spring sunshine the contemplation of the perfect mixture of human attributes shifts from the philosophers to the baseball scouts who comb the legions of young players searching to add to their team that most perfect concoction of the five classic skills: arm strength, running speed, fielding ability, hitting for average, hitting with power.
My youthful baseball experience was brief and unremarkable (“no hit, no field”), but after 30 years in the technology industry I have seen successful management skills in play and am often asked what makes up excellence in organizational leadership. Like the five physical skills in baseball there are five mental skills for corporate talent scouts. Top future leaders must show capabilities in the following:
1) Analyze information without bias. This is harder than it sounds. We all are attracted to that information that reinforces our preconceived beliefs. But social scientists are only now realizing how deep rooted our confirmation bias is. University of Michigan researchers found in 2006 that when passionate partisans were exposed to corrected facts that contradicted their earlier suppositions, not only did they fail to change their beliefs but in many cases they became even more devoted to their original position. Other similar studies warn us of the dangers of an inflexible point of view. The great leader must overcome his own bias in order to lead clearly.
2) Think strategically (depth and breadth): Too often strategic thinking focuses on planning years into the future and while this is important, it is not sufficient. Strategic thinking is not denominated in breadth of time but in depth of understanding: perceiving subterranean connections, anticipating secondary or tertiary consequences to actions, divining what is important from what is merely urgent.
3) Communicate well…both clearly and persuasively: Many can communicate clearly, less can communicate persuasively, still less can do both. We want data but we also crave its context delivered in a way that tells a story of how we succeed as a team. This happens not just with corporate sermons from the podium, but in every single interaction with every co-worker. Communicating is not simply delivering; it is also receiving. Though you would not know it from the business self-help books devoted to communications, it has as much to do with listening with purpose as it does with speaking or writing skills.
4) Confront unanticipated obstacles: It is often said that anyone can execute plan A; it is the real leader who can execute plan B or plan C. Angela Duckworth, from the University of Pennsylvania, and several colleagues looked at success predictors among several high demand populations (West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants, Ivy League students) and were able to demonstrate that “grit” which they defined as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” was a key success determiner. Each January I confidently tell my teams that the coming year will be one of unanticipated challenges. How do I know this? Because if you are in a competitive marketplace every year contains unexpected challenges. The gritty, resilient leader knows that and does not flounder or panic.
5) Maintain humility and self-awareness: “Know thyself” was the maxim inscribed on the ancient Greek temple at Delphi but it could just as usefully be the first instruction on every sign-in screen on every computer in corporate America. The great leaders understand that a well performing team is far more effective than the most outstanding individual contributor. I have rarely seen an instance when a highly performing organization fails to reflect positively back on its leader. I have seen all too many instances where unjustified pride, egoism, and craving for credit by the leader sucks the passion for performance from the team.
These are the five mental skills in my corporate scouting report. Show me the person with them and I’ll show you a major leaguer.