Discovering and Developing Great Leaders: An Art or a Science?

Art vs. Science

Evaluating leadership is not an exact science. In fact, some would say leadership is more of an art than a science. In art (and trust me when I say I’m no art expert…) beauty and masterful works are often in the eye of the beholder.

This implies that there are so many variables when it comes to defining art as great art.

Science however, aims to eliminate the variables in an effort to bring concrete realities to a subjective world.

Collision of Art and Science

A major leadership challenge today to discovering or developing leaders is the collision of art and science.

So what defines a great leader? How about a not so great leader?

We convey the art (subjective) aspect of leadership when we express our views of what a great leader or not so great leader looks like to us. However in the “real world” we are  constantly told that great leadership simply comes down to results. As a result (no pun intended…well maybe a little,) we have developed what I refer to as the science of seeing potentially great leaders fail and really not so good ones rise to great heights.

Science or Art: Case Study

For example, in the college and professional sports world I have seen great coaches fired and horrible coaches hired…again and again. You may argue if they didn’t produce the desired results then they were not so great. But I would say to you that Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, arguably the greatest NFL coach of all-time was fired by arguably one of the worst NFL teams in recent league history (sorry Cleveland Browns fans). The team of talented and current who’s who of successful leaders that he had amassed under one organization in Cleveland, I don’t think we will ever see again (see NFL Networks’ A Football Life: Cleveland ’95”). The point is that the science we use of finding successful leaders today has in many arenas often led to organizations letting go of leaders who would become great. And at the same time, they were investing tremendous amounts of resources into leaders who they thought would be great, only to find out not only where they not great; they were terrible. The issue I believe can be simplified in many cases to this:

Many are choosing leaders today based upon what they have done (the science) instead what they can or will do (the art).

Using the Past or the Future?

The science of choosing a leader often limits us to the pass as the predictor of the future. You’ve heard it said and might have said it yourself that pass performance (bottom line results) is an indicator of future success. Well, if we subscribed to this philosophy in the case of Bill Belichick, then we would all have on the crimson stain on our resumes of firing the best NFL head coach ever…arguably.

Mastering the Art of Discovery

So how do we master the art of discovering and developing great organizational leaders? Here are a few thoughts to consider:

1. Stop trying to get it down to a science!

The problem here is that there are always ever changing variables too numerous to count which play a significant factor in making choices always apples to oranges and not apples to apples.

2. Don’t get blinded by the past success of an individual.

Look at the key characteristics of the individual and be sure they align with your organizational DNA.

3. Become an artist and not a scientist!

Rather than crunching the numbers of the past, paint a picture of the future. Using your organization as the canvas, see the world not how it is but how it will be.

Take the character, skill set, and potential of the leader and paint them into the envisioned world as it will be.

4. Learn the art of painting pictures of the future.

This probably should be before #3 but hey, this is not an exact science! If you can see the future then you are leading blind. Just like driving, it is far more important to see what’s up ahead than focusing on what’s behind you (unless your speeding).

Most people are leading through their rear view mirror! Painting the future must be mastered because it can help you see at least a silhouette of what type of leader you will need to be successful.

5. Determine what type of art or picture you need to create.

For example, if you are forced by the higher ups to deal with the here and now (many of us have this challenge) paint a clear picture of your current situation and then place within it the type of leader that fits your imagery.

However, if the goal is long-term sustainability, you must learn to paint a quite different picture. In doing so you may find that the silhouette of the leader you envision does not fit with the consensus of up front or popular choice.

Here is where the rubber meets the road and you decide if you will lean on the artist within you or if the common practice of what have you done will continue to prevail. Now let’s go find the next Bill Belichick out there. They too may have just been fired from a place who couldn’t see their bright future as well! ********** Never miss an issue of Linked 2 Leadership, subscribe todayLearn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders™ ———————– Dr. Tommy Shavers Dr. Tommy Shavers is President of Tommy Speak LLC. and Unus Solutions Inc. His lenses are Teamwork, Leadership, and Communication Email | LinkedIn | TwitterWeb | Books

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. on December 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I’ve often felt that past success and experience are given far too much emphasis in hiring decisions, and not only for leaders. Like you, I think transferable skills, character, attitude and the ability to articulate a vision and how to meet it should count at least as much.

    • Dr. Tommy Shavers on December 27, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      Jagoda I agree with 100 percent. I remember once being on the hiring committee for a high level position at a major university. I was shocked at how people were being weeded out and others moved on to the next round solely because of the “alleged experiences” they conveyed on their resume. New talent, up and comers, innovators had no chance at the position because it wasn’t something the committee could see. I know I may be causing more problems than solutions, but I believe most hiring processes should consider doing things differently if they desire different results. Great thoughts