Why successful leadership is defined by learning, improvement

(What worked for successful leaders yesterday may not be successful tomorrow. Now is the time to experiment and evolve, before the world leaves you behind.)

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” So said legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. We love him, but in this instance we profoundly disagree. Our view is that perfection is all around us. That said, we do believe that perfection is fleeting, given that the universe—and the nature of the reality in which we live and work—is in a constant state of flux.

In particular, Danish physicist Per Bak formulated the notion of self-organized criticality in physical and physiological applications, and the academic literature increasingly shows important applications of criticality approaches in economics and psychology. Self-organized criticality views nature as perpetually out of balance, although temporarily organized in a stable state according to well-defined statistical laws. In other words, the theory that nature is in constant harmony is simply untrue. Instead, Bak proposed that systems with many components are actually in a state of constant imbalance. This also applies to the business world, so what worked for leaders before may not work in the future.

It is vital, therefore, always to think in terms of improvement, advancement and innovation, because change and the need to adapt to it are ever present. Constant learning and improvement are always possible, and in fact are necessary for remaining completive and relevant in this ever-changing world. As a result, learning and improvement should be the driving force of your leadership.

There are numerous strategies for constant improvement. Consider these time-tested strategies to get started and to share with your teams:

  • Never believe your own marketing or hype
  • Always be shopping your own business, as well as your competition
  • Be a voracious reader; ideas will abound
  • Always be refining standard operating procedures and efficiencies
  • Don’t be afraid of change, embrace ambiguity as a friend—it allows for increased creativity and interpretation
  • Don’t get complacent
  • Look at other innovative companies and people and apply lessons to your business or life
  • Hire a coach and take risks on new ways of thinking or acting
  • Set goals and measurements for success
  • Spend some quality “alone” time. Solitude is productive, while loneliness can be corrosive
  • Practice the little things; success is about the details
  • Ask for help
  • Build a strong network of constituents (the true believers)
  • Build true partnerships
According to new studies, attitude can be taught. Therefore, problem-solving skills and creativity are among the most important attributes for future employees.

Creativity and problem-solving can be among the best indicators of success. It’s not speculation, opinion or assumption; the fact is that the common mantra of “Hire for attitude, train for skill” is a misguided perspective on hiring, promotion or performance. Many so-called attitudes, motivational or temperament factors are in fact learnable skills themselves. Research consistently reveals that personality tests are poor predictors of workplace performance, whereas measures of general mental ability (reasoning, planning, abstract thinking, comprehending complex ideas and learning quickly) and role-specific skills are stronger and more consistent predictors of performance. Cognitive and emotional intelligence underpin ability and speed to new learn things, as well as capacity to adapt to new circumstances and handle stress. Personality factors, on the other hand, have been shown by independent research to be an inconsistent predictor of professional performance. It seems counterintuitive, but personality factors per se do not drive success in the workplace.

Interestingly, the ability to identify “best-in-class” talent is becoming easier every day with the internet, as well as other advanced technologies. Additionally, a number of tools can be utilized in such an assessment: psychometric testing, behavioral interviewing and in-depth reference checking, to name a few. These three approaches work together to produce the most accurate, comprehensive evaluation of an individual.

When it comes to psychometric testing, it is advisable first to focus on a candidate’s “cognitive abilities.” The two primary areas are scores in creativity and problem-solving. Creativity is someone’s big-picture thinking and the ability to see patterns and connections where others don’t—it’s all about construction, and is akin to playing chess. On the other hand, there’s traditional problem-solving. This reflects the analytical and critical-thinking abilities that are needed to solve complex, technical and nuanced challenges—it’s all about deconstruction and is akin to playing checkers. Combined, these two metrics of psychometric testing can historically identify top-performing leaders in any field. Simply and candidly put, smart people outperform their less bright counterparts by a wide margin. And at the end of the day, it is all about performance.

For those wanting to improve in their value proposition to their organizations, enhance your creativity and problem-solving capabilities. While IQ is genetically determined to an extent, the skills needed for thinking and conceptualizing information in terms of both construction and deconstruction of data are trainable. Up your brain power if you want to up your game. Creativity and problem-solving—or general mental ability—is the ultimate transferable skill set.

Now, let’s bring this approach into hospitality leadership.

Keith Kefgen and James Houran, PhD. are the CEO and managing directors of AETHOS Consulting Group, a hospitality-focused human capital advisory, and the authors of Loneliness of Leadership -  the result of a three-year study of C-suite executives in lodging, restaurants, gaming and other hospitality sectors. They are also the founders of 20|20 Assess - a wholly owned subsidiary of AETHOS Consulting Group and a proprietary suite of hospitality-specific HR and leadership software for performance management.