Leadership Isn’t Philosophy. It’s Science.

If you want to build better talent at the top of your organization, you need to stop trusting your intuition and start trusting the data.

By Robyn L. Garrett

The mark of a good villain is they’re absolutely certain they’re right. They aren’t acting to make the world dark and chaotic—they’re boldly taking action to make the world better, at least the way they see it. They have dimension, history, and they point to righteous reasons for their actions.

Think back to the worst boss you ever had. When you recall their most awful actions, were they seemingly done in malice, or did they truly believe in their cause? 

Which Joker were they: Jared Leto cartoonishly cackling for the sake of evil in Suicide Squad, or Heath Ledger pushing a dangerous agenda in The Dark Knight? I’m willing to bet many bosses—but certainly not all—genuinely felt they were doing what was right. And no amount of reason or research was going to convince them otherwise. 

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To be clear, I’m not talking about a bunch of Jared Letos stomping the halls of every corporate office building. I’m talking about thousands of managers, directors, vice presidents, and c-suite officers who have unique motivations, situations, and goals. But they all have one thing in common: They believe they’re right.

How can this be? The corporate world is investing $370 billion every year in leadership development. I’m certain they aren’t doing it so they can make the world worse. 

No, I would argue the reason leaders can be so certain they’re right is because we treat leadership as if it were philosophy. But it isn’t. It’s science. And this ultimately means we’re using a misguided set of criteria to select and judge leaders. 

The Wrong Way to Measure Leadership

The problem with leadership as philosophy is it’s more likely to be felt than seen. But traditional leadership personality traits aren’t the best predictors of success. 

For example, it’s established that narcissism and overconfidence are common in leaders. And yet, despite overwhelming data showing narcissism has a detrimental effect on organizations, people with these traits continue to hold and gain leadership positions. 

This misalignment goes beyond negative effects on business outcomes. It also has major implications for issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. On average, men are significantly more narcissistic than women. (If you’re having a knee-jerk reaction that this can’t be right, you’re a living example of trusting intuition over data.)

Extensive research shows they’re more likely to be exploitative, authoritative, and, to a lesser extent, grandiose. All of these qualities can often help them be “visible,” something that’s also overvalued and unlikely to predict actual success. 

Unsurprisingly, race is also a major factor in how leaders are perceived. Black leaders are more likely to be rated negatively than their white counterparts in formal performance reviews. 

It’s also significantly more likely that minor and innocuous mistakes will be used to justify negative reviews of black leaders. These perceptions are damaging and are one of many factors that make it more difficult for people of color—especially women and other intersectional individuals—to advance in their careers. 

The good news? We do know the real competencies that are essential for excellent leadership. We just continue to allow intuition to supersede the actual data. 

“Identifying effective leaders will continue to be a challenge,” says Derek Lusk, Ph.D., head of executive assessment at AIIR Consulting, “not because we don’t have the right tools, but because we don’t use the tools we have.” 

This must change. And it can.

Today Is the Turning Point 

While VUCA conditions have certainly been on the rise since the digital revolution, the amount of change seen in the past decade has been unprecedented. 

The 20th century was dominated by goliaths that reigned for decades, but many of today’s top companies have existed for only a few years. This state of continuous disruption has proven that no industry or business is safe, no matter how well-established. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this level of disruption even further. While some industries were still able to cling to revenue in the pre-pandemic years, their inability to digitize, pivot, and meet new customer expectations simply knocked out vulnerable players that weren’t able to weather any more change. 

This isn’t just happening at the organizational level; lots of individuals have been forced to rapidly adapt in ways they philosophically opposed. Think about how many managers have spent the past few years desperately resisting remote work, putting off overdue digitization, or openly opposing a customer-centric mindset. 

The data was clear all along: These things were necessary, and bound to catch up with us eventually.

It’s Time to Embrace Science, Data, and a New Approach

The first step toward transformation is simply an awareness that we need to embrace new and better methods of selecting, reviewing, and rewarding leaders. 

In many organizations, leaders are still promoted because of their experience in a technical skill, not necessarily for their ability to inspire others and achieve results. In today’s highly complex and competitive environment, technical skills simply aren’t enough. 

Instead, organizations must focus on the leadership competencies that actually predict leadership success. That means much more focus on people. Instead of assuming traditional methods are the “gold standard,” we should view them with more skepticism. 

Instead of assuming the leaders we have are good, we need to recognize leadership is a lifelong journey, and it takes continuous development, coaching, self-awareness, and open-mindedness to prepare for the challenges ahead. 

Organizations that champion a data-driven, science-backed approach to leadership development now will have a clear competitive advantage in years to come. The best thing we can do is to stop wasting time on fruitless philosophical debates and instead ask, “What does the data say?”

If we can have the humility to think about leadership differently and put our personal preferences and intuitions aside, then we can take the fast track to success and save ourselves some headaches along the way.

Robyn L. Garrett is chief customer officer at AIIR Consulting, a leadership development firm that leverages data science, advanced business psychology, and innovative technology to deliver proven results. You can find her on LinkedIn or Instagram at @youcantfightthefuture.