Testing Leaders

Richard Shrapnel's 'Testing Leaders'.

The number one success indicator for any business is the worthiness of its leaders. And when we come to select leaders, most will be decided upon by their experience, connections, compatibility and qualifications. But do these indicators correctly reflect their worthiness to be a leader?


Active Knowledge Question:

How do you choose your leaders?


From Seed To Forest

The seed of any business is its founders; they are the business’s first leaders. They form the cornerstone of the business and its future is built upon their foundation.

But as time passes and the business grows, more people will be appointed as leaders. And there will come a time when the founders step aside and new leadership will truly take over.

As each new leader is appointed, they will either strengthen or weaken the business. The ceiling to the success of your business lies in your leadership team’s level of worthiness, with the lowest dominator setting that ceiling. That is, your weakest leader sets the limit to your success.

Worthiness in a leadership context refers to the character of a person and their motive in stepping into leadership. It is these aspects that will determine their effectiveness as a leader. And every leader should recognise the effect of centripetal leadership, and only ever appoint worthy leaders as a business grows.

Of course, leaders exist throughout a business at all its levels and in all its corners.


Testing A Leader’s Worthiness

How do you go about choosing your leaders and ensuring they have the traits of a worthy leader?

Well, here is some advice from T’ai Kung Liu-T’ao’s ‘Six Secret Teachings’ given to Kings Wen and Wu of the Chou dynasty in the eleventh century BC about how to select your leaders carefully. Note this advice was based upon centuries of experience:

‘Make them rich and observe whether they do not commit offences. Give them rank and observe whether they do not become arrogant. Entrust them with responsibility and see whether they will not change. Employ them and see whether they will not conceal anything. Endanger them and see whether they are not afraid. Give them management of affairs and see whether they are not perplexed.’

In other words, give them the rights and responsibilities of leadership and observe to see how that may draw out negative traits that you did not recognise. If it does, remove them without hesitation.


Testing A Board’s and CEO’s Worthiness

Of course, worthiness in leadership flows through example and from the most senior levels in a business.

The traits of a worthy leader are ones that support centripetal leadership and permit trust to flourish. But it is dependent on the character of the leader and self-interest is not a permissible trait.

Again, turning to leadership advice from around the eleventh century BC to the kings ruling in the Chou dynasty in China, which I have adapted to the business world:

Concerning the theme of virtue, it is the CEO and their C-suite leaders that are responsible for setting the example for all their people. Benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, creditability, sincerity, courage, and wisdom are the virtues they must nurture and display.

Furthermore, the CEO is not only a source of personal example, but they are required to gain an intimate understanding of the needs of their people. Personal emotions are not permitted to interfere with the impartial government, and excessive pleasures by the CEO or their C-suite leaders to the detriment of the people are unforgivable.

Righteousness must always override personal desires and emotions, and the CEO must actively share the hardships and pleasures of their people and clearly be seen to be doing so.

It is only through such a course that a CEO can bind their people to their business.

Of course, this advice extends up to the board and the interests they represent. It was premised around building empires with a people that supported its rulers.

There would, I think, be very few public companies whose leaders could say that this is the path they have walked. Yet it is a standard of behaviour that would likely yield a very different relationship with employees than many businesses presently enjoy.


When assessing people for leadership roles, character and motive should always be the gateway, and if they don’t meet the standards of a worthy leader, then they should not even be considered.


(T’ai Kung Liu-T’ao’s ‘Six Secret Teachings’ sourced and adapted from readings of Sawyer, R.D. (1993). ‘The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China’. Colorado, Westview Press Inc.)

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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel