The topic of leadership is popular not only in the Czech Republic, but all over the world. You've been dedicated to the field of leadership most of your life. How did you get into leadership, and why do you think the topic is so important?
I got into leadership through college. I was in charge of a group of boys mostly from working-class families who worked as janitors, and I had to persuade them to do dirty work.
Then I joined the Navy, where an officer assigned me to take care of one part of the ship that was in a big mess. I managed to get everything working at a really high level. Nevertheless, other sailors - mostly of the same rank - were furious with me and they constantly criticized me, saying I can't lead people and I don't have the age or status to do so. I objected to them that my part of the ship was fine and theirs was not, so who was better?. But basically, I spent 18 months under intense criticism about my not understanding leadership and that's where it all started.
In the mid-1980s, I wanted to reach the top of my academic career and become an authority in the field of leadership, which for me meant basically immersing myself in the topic. I took a year off and just read and read. I found out that the academic sphere does not know much about leadership. What was written in textbooks and magazines did not coincide at all with what I experienced in real life. So I had to find out everything empirically myself.
Interview of Michal Kankrlík with Robert Hogan
You once said, "Winners win and losers lose." Is it true that a person is born a leader, or can he or she learn to become one?
I think it's a good analogy with tennis. Are you born a great player, or do you gradually become one? Of course, you have to be born with a certain talent and physical preconditions, but you will only become a top player thanks to long experience and training. Leading people usually have talent, but someone has to draw them into the role so that they can manifest and further develop it. And one must practise that.
What do you need to learn to become a successful leader?
The most important thing is to be able to learn from experience, especially from your mistakes, and to be able to listen to good advice. Those who did not do so failed. These are people who don't want to learn, can't adapt, don't learn from experience, and don't care about advice. Arrogant people refuse feedback, thinking they know everything better. They often can't even admit to themselves that they made a mistake, so you can't coach them. We can measure this behaviour. We can measure people's ability to learn from experience, and most do not have enough control.
You mentioned two basic types of leaders or managers, some – you call them politicians – are good at relationships with their superiors, and the others are real leaders who have results with their teams. Is there also a combination of these two leadership types?
We can look at the example of football coach Jose Mourinho. He is a great leader, his teams love him, but he can't get along with the management of football clubs for a long time, that's why he gets fired so often. He just cannot play the political game.
I once asked a university president how he had managed to get to his position. His answer was that it was all about good relations with the board. This is exactly what some even very successful people cannot do.
As the career progresses, the content of the job role also changes. However, as one progresses higher and higher, usually tends to do things the same way as before, but it does not work that way. The first level of management has to work directly with people and this is an area where leadership really matters. Middle managers are actually politicians and diplomats at the same time. When they get assignments from superiors, they have to sell them to front-line managers.
Middle management is forced to work with often crazy demands from above and resistance of subordinates at the same time. The work of the people at the top is primarily about making the right decisions and planning strategies. Top management is not about inspiring or ensuring the responsibility of specific people. Therefore, only in the first line of management does quality leadership matter. And this is the moment where I see a real problem in many companies.
Top managers don't really control people. Simply put, a leader at the lowest level must be a good leader, at the middle a good politician, and at the highest a good strategist, who is able to make the right decisions.
We often see that the higher up the corporate ladder, the lower our personal risk. We have seen many stories where top managers failed and had to leave, however, they were given such a high severance pay that it would be enough for the rest of their lives. While middle and lower management risk much more. When they lose their job, the game is over, with no or very limited severance money. Is it fair?
No, it's not fair. Unfortunately, this often happens.
Your claim there are two types of leaders and two types of conflicts. Within an organization, there is a competition for positions and status, and then there is the real struggle, often for survival, between groups and organizations fighting with each other.
Yes, the struggle for survival between groups is much more important and severe, but psychologists don't talk about it. Of course, the right leader tries to focus on the survival of his team or organization and not just himself.
You were the first to introduce the concept of personality. However, many psychologists disagreed with you because they thought it was nonsense. How did you manage to convince them?
I think there is only one right way to convince someone and that is to use convincing data. The only bad news is that these people won't even trust your data. There is a winged sentence uttered by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr that you will never convince your intellectual enemies in science, you have to wait for them to die. I think that's true. They see all their work from a certain point of view, they have their arguments, which they use to support their claims.
For personality evaluation, you use the countless amounts of data you collect, which you have available for almost every job position. Anyone who uses this analysis will get a clear idea of what personality profile of the candidate is needed for a given position. Do you see the future not only in data collection itself but also thanks to the Internet and its better availability for a wider range of people in companies, so that it does not only serve HR and management?
That is a really good question and also the future of our business. We try to properly understand and use modern technology.
When you look at what is happening in the world, there are basically two opposing leadership models fighting each other - democracy and authoritarian regimes. Do you observe any development in the struggle of these concepts? Will the struggle between autocracies and democracies last forever, or will humanity begin to focus more on how to survive on this planet?
I am not very optimistic about this issue. I do not think that much progress has been made. Progress is only in the field of technology development coming from economic development, but people are not getting better. It is a difficult question. I would say a few things about that.
Academic sphere - political scientists, sociologists, historians, economists, and psychologists have not carried out large-scale research on this topic. I do not think that democracy as such exists at all. He argues in economic magazines that democracy goes hand in hand with economic development. It is important for democracy that it gives entrepreneurs space to try. It allows economic freedom. But the Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Koreans have very robust and successful economies even without democracy. This is because they allow their entrepreneurs to lose, they give them a chance to make a mistake.
China had a successful economy until the covid because Wei Xiaoping established an autocratic regime, which, however, gave entrepreneurs partial economic freedom. That's the trick. Autocracy can react faster. Joe Biden basically has almost no power, it's a miracle that he can enforce anything. While Putin or Si Jinping says, do it, and it's running. They are able to react to things much faster. I am really worried about the future of democracy.
The basic question is how strong the economy is. It decided the outcome of World War II. The winner was the one who had the best economy, not the one who had the best system. Any conversation about democracy is a conversation about economics. The strength of the army is determined by the robustness and size of the economy, when you have a good economy, you can buy weapons, when you have a bad economy, you do not buy weapons. How to work towards a robust economy - I am not sure that democracy is a prerequisite for this, but freedom for entrepreneurs is needed. It is a very difficult question and unfortunately, we are not making any progress, we are just intertwined all the time.
You can have either freedom or equality. But you can't have both at the same time, if you want equality, you have to suppress freedom. It's a fascinating paradox.
We hear a lot of expressions about society and fair business, people want freedom and they want justice, how do combine these two important concepts?
You have a relatively stable system in the Czech Republic, but there are hundreds of Viktor Orbans out there who want to seize power. These people are like wolves around a campfire, waiting for their opportunity to take power for their own benefit. It happens in every company and you always have to be vigilant.
Let's go back to business, what should people in middle management do at this time to really pay attention to the development of good leaders? This is a question that people will ask themselves after they return from today's conference to their managers and they will ask them how we can find and develop good leaders? Is there a short answer and what is the biggest obstacle?
I have two answers to that. I love the quote, "If you want to change people, you have to change people." You have to recruit new ones and choose them well according to their profiles. The German army invented psychological personal evaluation at the end of the First World War. They thought they had lost the war because they had poor leadership. They needed a systematic method of finding good leaders. In the 1920s, they invented personality assessments. It worked really well until the Nazis came to power, and then it turned out that the Nazi candidates were rejected by the method, so they canceled it because, according to them, the system did not work ...
Two boys from Harvard studied this method in Germany and transferred it to the USA, where it then began to be widely used. When World War II broke out, she began collecting spies. The modern field of leadership thus emerged after the First World War. And what we're doing today is similar to what the Germans were doing back then, only it's digitally modernized. The field of personality and leadership studies have been connected and used in the USA practically since the 1920s.
You mentioned that according to the normal distribution, 20% of employees are usually responsible for 80% of the results. Should we give priority to this small group of people with higher potential?
Yes, it's a way to do it right, but it doesn't work in most organizations. Internal politicking will prevent a rational approach to this process.
According to your practice, most leaders try to behave charismatically and thus want to create a better impression than their abilities. They can build relationships with people and they are promoted faster in the organization. According to your presentation, senior managers like to choose people not according to their abilities, but according to how they can support their own careers. In large companies, however, we now often see an effort to break the existing organizational structure into small agile parts and create teams and units almost on the basis of startups. How do you see this activity?
It is definitely a step in the right direction to break down the existing political barriers, which are anchored and rigid.
The struggle for food and resources is a constant conflict that has existed since the very existence of mankind. Do you think this is a never-ending process? Six years ago, you told me that the world should care less about social networks, entertainment, and the Internet, and focus more on how to feed people and where to get more resources. What do you think the future will bring?
I'm quite a pessimist. The population of sub-Saharan Africa will double by 2050 and people are already starving there. Migration will be a very critical issue. In the United States, queues at food banks are constantly lengthening. A significant part of the world's population, for example in Afghanistan, is also hungry.
Around 1776, Thomas Malthus wrote a treatise on the population, stating that the population would always expand beyond the possibilities of food availability. When there is enough food, humans reproduce just like rats, rabbits, and deer. And then suddenly there are many people and a lack of food and then comes extinction. No one is referring to it today, but we will probably see the coming of the Malthusian revolution in the future.
I can't look at pictures of starving kids, but if you send money there, they will make even more children. 70% of the population already has this problem and it cannot be solved.