Hire Leaders for What They Can Do, Not What They Have Done

The secret to selecting great leaders is to predict the future, not to reward the past. Avoid promoting entirely based on culture fit.


“In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties,” noted the Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter in 1969. His theory, since then referred to as the “Peter Principle,” relied on the notion that most competent people are promoted until they reach a position that is above their skill level, at which point they cease to grow.

Fifty years have gone by, but the rule still applies. Academic studies show that promotions are still largely a reward for past performance, and that organizations continue to assume the attributes that have made someone successful so far will continue to make them successful, even if their responsibilities change. This may explain why there are still a lot of incompetent leaders.

Organizations that want the best people for leadership roles need to change how they evaluate candidates. The next time you’re filling a managerial position, ask yourself three questions:


The performance level of individual contributors is measured largely through their ability, likability and drive. Leadership, by contrast, demands a broader range of character traits, including high levels of integrity and low levels of dark-side behaviors born out of negative attributes likes narcissism or psychopathy. The difference between these two skill sets explains why great athletes often end up being mediocre coaches (and vice versa), and why high performers often fail to succeed in leadership positions. Great leaders are able to remain open and to adapt, no matter how experienced they are. They succeed because they are able to continually learn.


The most common indicator of someone’s performance is a single subjective rating by a direct line manager. This makes measures of performance vulnerable to bias, politics and an employee’s ability to manage up. Although peer-based and network-oriented performance management is growing, it is still in its infancy. As a result, performance measures may not be as reliable as you think. This is likely why women still tend to be promoted less often than men, even when their performance is identical. Many organizations promote people into leadership positions because they “create the right impression.”


The secret to selecting great leaders is to predict the future, not to reward the past. Avoid promoting entirely based on culture fit; it often results in a lack of diversity of thought and outdated leadership models. Take an extra look at the people who “may not be ready” and analyze them on the basis of their ambition, reputation and passion for your business. Often the youngest, most agile and most confident people turn into incredible leaders, even though their track record may not be the best.

It’s time to rethink the notion of leadership. If you move beyond promoting those with the most competence and start thinking more about those who can get you where you want to go, your company will thrive.


Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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