Why some Leaders outperform and others falter

By Matthew Owens

What do Martin Luther King, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, and Mother Teresa have in common?

Undeniably, they were all ‘extraordinary’ leaders of the 20th Century. However, to label them as ‘extraordinary’ is not the same as describing their ‘performance’ as leaders as ‘effective’, or even ‘adequate’. We know they were ‘extraordinary’ because we can look back and evaluate the impact of their leadership on history. However, it is much harder to make consistent, qualitive and objective judgments about the quality of their ‘performance’ as leaders even when looking in the rear view mirror of history; opinions tend to vary wildly depending on the unique perspective of the observer, and the prejudices and inherent biases of the historian are unfiltered.  

In the Executive Search (ES) industry, accurately predicting ‘future performance’ in a leadership role is even more challenging than evaluating the quality of past performance.

It is well documented that the odds facing business leaders selecting future leader using conventional ES methodology are no better than a coin flip* (between 50 and 60% of completed assignments).  At Mercuri Urval ‘the home of leader selection science’, we are successfully disrupting this established norm. We can demonstrate unequivocally there is a better way. Through decades of experience and meticulous scientific research, we have found significantly improved these odds. We accurately predict which business leaders will outperform in more than 94% of the assignments we complete.

We believe there is much the Executive Search industry can learn from history, and that there is even more to be learned from science.

When studying the careers of ‘extraordinary’ leaders, historians not only focus on their personal attributes, skills and capabilities, they also pay significant attention to the context in which these leaders were able to thrive. For example, they question whether Churchill would have been so revered had it not been for WW2? In many respects his career was on the slide by the time war was declared. So too, scholars studying the history of 50s and 60s  America might reasonably ask whether Martin Luther King would have been more than just an extraordinarily gifted Baptist Preacher had the Civil Rights Movement not needed an inspirational and powerful voice to preach the injustice of racial disenfranchisement, segregation and discrimination? Both these leaders were undeniably in their own way ‘extraordinary, but when reflecting on the quality of their leadership, common sense dictates the context makes at least as big a contribution to their success or failure as their personal attributes and characteristics.

All of us understand intuitively, not every leader can be an ‘effective’ leader (delivering desired results) in every situation.

Yet, in spite of this fundamental truth, too often the judgments made when appointing senior business leaders are based on irrelevant criteria and a superficial understanding of the context. Too often the assumption is made that certain generic attributes will deliver success; empathy, agility, cultural sensitivity etc. ‘Generic leadership models’ describing what constitutes ‘effective’ leadership (without rigorous scientific underpinning) continue to be deployed, with too little regard for the unique context in which the leader is required to perform.  These built-in errors when making senior appointments continue to be ignored, even though the extraordinarily punitive cost of failure is well known and high-profile incidents of failure are widely reported year after year.

To make an accurate prediction of future success in a leadership role, science tells us - it is not enough simply to rely on overly simplistic and generic leadership models.

A systematic analysis of the context in which these tasks need to be performed and the results the leader must achieve short and long-term should be conducted. Without this depth of understanding, some of the most relevant criteria required for making accurate predictions of future performance are at best neglected, and at worse ignored.

At MU, when advising our clients, we ensure our advice is underpinned by science.

One of the fundaments of our approach to Leader Acquisition and Leader Development is a systematic evaluation of the business situation and future context in addition to a systematic analysis of the future result expectations and the specific demands of the role. Only when all these dimensions are accurately understood can the right predictors of future success be selected. These predictors should also have scientific underpinning. This is how MU, the home of ‘Leader Selection Science’, is able to achieve 94%+ predictive validity when recommending candidates for leadership roles. The typical success rate when using conventional Executive Search methodology is just 50 to 60%. At MU we believe our clients, communities and society in general deserve better; sustainable leadership success should be an achievable goal for every business. Future performance in a leadership role cannot be predicted without a systematic analysis of the relevant business context.


*(Kiefer, Martin & Hunt, 2020, p. 2)