Sunday, July 22, 2007

Choosing a leader - the 'battle scars' way

There is a huge amount of literature on the characteristics of a good leader. What is not so certain is whether this extensive body of knowledge is leveraged when organizations actually choose leaders. In this context, I remember a story that I had heard a long time ago. It is about an 'ancient method' for choosing leaders. I am not sure if this story is a real one/based on facts. But, as I have mentioned earlier, there can be some things that are too true to be real.

The story says that in some ancient societies, there was an interesting method for choosing the leaders. The procedure was rather simple - count the number of battle scars on the bodies of the candidates. The candidate with the highest number of battle scars gets selected as the leader.

Though this method appears to be rather 'weird', there is an interesting logic behind it. If one has too few battle scars, it means that one hasn't taken enough risks in one's life. Of course, if one took too many risks, he/she would have got killed already, and hence he/she won't even land up for the leader selection process! Hence the candidate with the highest number of battle scars qualifies as the leader.

This makes me wonder if this 'weird' selection principle has any relevance in today's organizations. If we look at the story carefully, we can see that the underlying assumption of the selection process (described in the story) is that 'the ability to take an optimum amount of risk (or the ability to pick and choose one's 'battles')is the key success factor for a leader'. This is true to a large extent even today, though there are many other factors that make an effective leader.

Since the battles in corporate world are no longer 'physical battles' (leaving aside the studies on 'workplace violence' - for the time being !) , 'battle scars on the body' is no longer a valid indicator (even if we assume that there won't be any fudging - say by 'manufacturing' battle scars through cosmetic surgery!). But 'less physical equivalents' of battle scars (say ambitious projects that have failed) can still be found. It can also be argued that if someone takes too many risks and/or 'wild' risks it is likely that it would lead to 'too many too bad failures' in his/her career, which in turn would mean that he/she is unlikely to 'survive long enough'/reach a senior enough position in an organization to be a leadership candidate. So this principle could still have some relevance - at least on the dimension of risk taking!

Actually, if this principle gets widely adopted, it can lead to many interesting situations. For example, job candidates will include a section in their CVs titled 'My key failures' (that list the ambitious moves/projects that have failed, learnings from them & how they have helped in becoming a better leader) in addition to the usual section titled 'my key achievements ' !!!

What do you think?


Alexander Kjerulf said...

I think that's a fascinating idea. Don't promote the people who've had the most success - promote the people who've had the most interesting failures.

This reminds me of Peter Drucker's old advice that we should find all the people in an organization who never make mistakes - and fire them. Because the only people who never make mistakes, are those who never do anything interesting or new.

astha said...

I think it's a great idea. McCall talks a lot about this in his books on leadership and learning.

A lot of the skills we need as leaders only come from failure. In fact I remember reading an HBR article on how we should stop rolling out the red carpet for management trainees-- because this shields them from early failure. Just setting them up for bigger debacles in more critical phases of their careers.

Patrick said...

Prasad :

I love it and I think you are right on the money.

Nobody expectsthe leader to have all the answers, but they would like to see their leaders have courage to assess the risks and make good judgements while advancing whatever cause they care about.

Patrick at

Prasad Kurian said...

Hello Pat,

Thank you very much for reading the post and for your comment.