A professor and I were discussing the effect of goals on employee performance. He was commenting that research shows they raise performance until people believe they are unattainable at which point performance becomes worse than if no goals existed. I then asked him if any research showed that leaders – who could increase people’s belief in themselves – could get people to accept previously unrealistic goals as realistic and thus achieve even higher performance levels. He replied, “No,” but then asked, “How would you set up an experiment to test that?”
I did not know, but it got me thinking and finally concluding after considerable thought and research that we cannot use the scientific method to prove that good leadership begets good things. For example, before running such an experiment we have to define good leadership and good results. Since leadership has a high emotional component, it exposes itself to much subjectivity.
Even if we could do this, defining good results is difficult itself. Let’s say we use profits as a starting point. Do we base our assessment on months, quarters, years or five-year periods? Do we assess only during leaders’ tenures or include afterwards to see in what condition they left their groups? If so, how long after their tenure do we examine? Finally, are profits our only consideration? Do morale, social considerations, ethics and other such tangibles enter the picture?
Okay, assuming we could create good definitions, how do we establish the controls? If we pit a good leader against a bad leader, how do we create identical conditions? How do we ensure the same economic forces, people, money, markets, etc.? How do even ensure the same uncertainties would arise?
In the end, good leadership is very much like good dancing, athleticism or engineering. It’s subjective. It’s scientifically unproven.