Too busy Judging when we should be developing


We have been working with several groups of leaders recently who are in the midst of the annual cycle of performance reviews. This often involves talent identification, evaluations and various pigeonholing tools like 9-box grids, success circles and values matrices.


My problem is not simply with the tools or the concept of identifying talent but more broadly with the underpinning assumption in all these tools – that leaders are good at judging others, and that in putting a priority on judging others it comes at the cost of the more useful leadership activity. What you might be doing to actively develop people and leaders in particular?


Most people, when asked, categorise themselves as better than average drivers. Most leaders, when asked, categorise themselves as better than average judges of character and talent. Many of these people are wrong, but in evaluating themselves show the fully human characteristic of being poor judges of their own ability. I certainly must count myself in that category and with experience have had to conclude that I’m not a good judge of others. I’ve got good examples of people in my career who I both wildly underestimated or overestimated. I guess I’ve learnt to be more sceptical of my judgments, to rely more on others, to actively seek alternative perspectives, to withhold judgement wherever possible and to stay humble.


In fact, history abounds with famous examples of judgements on the supposed talents or ability of others which could not have been more wrong. Tom Brady, the most successful American Football Quarterback to play the game, famously barely made the draft and was written off by almost every talent scout who’d seen him. J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have sold over 600 million copies, but only after it had been rejected by twelve separate publishers.


In the US Civil War, General George McClellan served as the commanding General of the United States Army – judged by many to be the epitome of an outstanding general officer, but he had to be removed by President Lincoln as wholly incapable of handling the responsibilities of his post. He was eventually replaced by Ulysses Grant, an officer who throughout much of his career was judged to be average at best, but who ultimately defeated Lee, saved the Union, and went on to be President.


Rather than judging others, leaders would do far better to spend more of their time developing their leaders. Not with some trite feedback remarks in the development plan of the annual review. The leadership equivalent of a drive-by shooting and just as welcome. Rather by actively working alongside more junior leaders to help them develop the skill of leadership through effective practice with access to good quality feedback. Throughout the entirety of my military career, I would say that the dominant feeling of being in a hierarchy was of constantly being judged and evaluated. Development was in spite of and not because of this. It retarded rather than accelerated my leadership development. I doubt my experience is unusual or restricted to the military.


If you are a leader with sufficient seniority to sit above other leaders, my plea is that you spend less time judging (because you probably suck at it, don’t notice much and what you do notice is unlikely to be insightful) and more time thinking about how to become an ally and a partner. No matter what you imagine their talent to be and actively work with them to become better leaders. People are likely to astonish you with what they are actually capable of becoming.

‘Instruction does much, but encouragement, everything’. Goethe.


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