There Must Always Be a Leader, and It Matters Who That Is – Interview with Dr. Robert Hogan

ICF*This interview was originally published in Business Class Magazin – this is the translation of the Hungarian text. The original version can be found here.

We met Dr. Robert Hogan at the Four Seasons Budapest. He is an American psychologist and the founder of Hogan Assessments who has institutionalized the use of personality assessments for the enhancement of work performance, and whose organization serves more than half of the Fortune 500 companies. He visited Budapest for the “Future of Coaching in Organisations” international conference organized in April, and he took some time to meet us for a glass of Chardonnay.

Please summarize briefly the principles and main elements of the personality test which you have developed, and which is used so widely in the business world.

People who have power make decisions every day that affect those who have less power. They hire, promote or fire them. These decisions are usually based on work interviews with them, but this is the worst possible way to make a decision that has such an effect on a person’s life. My aim was to make employee evaluations – firings, promotions, hiring interviews – that is, the whole decision-making process – rational and empirical. So, I based it on defensible, scientific foundations. Over the years, we have built up a serious database – based on this we can demonstrate that if business leaders listen to us, they will make better decisions regarding their employees. And why is this important? The keys to success in business are money and people. Managers generally make rational decisions when comes to money, so why wouldn’t they want to make rational decisions when it comes to people?

Do you think it’s important for a good leader to have psychological or coaching experience?

It’s a good question. My views are based on scientific research and data. These data show that good leaders need to possess four attributes. They have to be honest – it’s important that they have a moral compass, so you don’t end up with liars, thieves or frauds. They shouldn’t make duplicitous decisions behind the backs of others. If they are not honest, then they will fail. For example, Bill Clinton was a liar, that’s why nobody was loyal to him in his government. The second requirement is to be competent – they have to know what to do and how they should do it. If you are always the boss, people turn to you for advice. If you don’t know what you are talking about, then you can’t give good advice, which has immediate consequences. For example, Barack Obama never led anything, he wasn’t ever the boss of anything, and so he failed.

Do you think he failed?

Yes, I think so, namely because he didn’t know what he was doing.

He was elected twice.

The reason behind this is the quality of his rivals. Many people don’t like Donald Trump, but what was the alternative?

Honesty and competence. Which other attributes are necessary?

The third is whether you are capable of making good decisions, or if you made a mistake, to admit it and fix it. Evidence shows that 50 percent of business decisions are bad. So you can’t always arrive at good decisions. The key to good judgement is to realize if you’ve made a bad decision, and to be able to fix it. Let me mention one more politician as an example, George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq – which was a bad idea. Then, Bush raised the stakes and he didn’t leave the area. Bad decisions ruin the organisation, whether it’s a corporation or a political body. In the end, it’s important whether you have vision, whether you can explain why you are doing what you are doing, or what your objective is from which others can set their own. These are the four indispensable tools of a leader. Things like having to be kind to others are not among these. Meanwhile, I think a good leader has to be humble as well; he or she has to listen to the opinions of others. It’s important for him or her to be open, and it’s just as important that when he or she delegates a task to someone, he or she has confidence in that person. At the same time, a good leader is also a good manipulator – it doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has to understand people, he or she just has to persuade them to follow him or her. To bring up another presidential example: although Ronald Reagan was an excellent manipulator, he couldn’t be truly appreciated because all his other attributes were imperfect.

They were politicians?


Aren’t business and political attitudes different? Don’t they require different skills and capabilities?

There are solid arguments which prove that really successful executives are humble and listen to their employees. They listen to feedback. They trust their people and they build teams. This is why Barack Obama failed – he never built a team, never talked to anyone, just sat in his office alone. You have to be able to build a team.

I suppose that you are aware of the highly successful series, “House of Cards” – what is your opinion of Frank Underwood; what kind of leader is the president in that series?

I liked the British version more. The BBC version was top-notch. Frank Underwood is a real leader. Politics are about this, people like him can collect votes, but then what will they add to the whole when they get to the top? I think this is a problem in the business world too: that in the end politicians rise above executives, but they are not experts in anything apart from getting themselves elected. Even campaign slogans are about this: for being able to make a change, they have to be elected first, but what do they actually do after having been elected? They try to remain in power, and for this they just say to the people whatever they want to hear. And this is just a kind of entertainment, nothing more. At the same time, as a corporate leader you have to do something to bring about change, you have to achieve something. An army general or the coach of an athletic team has to achieve victory; it’s not enough for him or her to be popular.

What caused you turn your attention towards the business sphere after leaving university, as a practicing psychologist?

I have always been interested in leadership and the business world. During my university years during the ‘60s and ‘70s, the general view among academics was that the personality of the leader is unimportant. If business was successful, they owed it to luck, not the personality of the leader. But I have never believed this. I had been practicing as an academic for a long time, and when I finally received my pay check, I started asking myself about the way ahead. Academic salaries are poor, and I didn’t want to live this way; I had to make money somehow. I knew that I was good at psychological evaluations, and that maybe I could profit from this, so I tried to make money from my interest, that is, from studying leaders.

It wasn’t easy to shape the way of thinking, you have been attacked by many.

I have proven with my team that managerial attitude is indeed important. In the 1990s, we proved, scientifically and supported by data, that the role of personality is fundamental in how people perform in the workplace. Then in the beginning of the 2000s we proved that leadership characteristics are also determinants in leading a company to success. And in the middle of the 2000s I published that personality characteristics determine corporate results. It turned out that the successful operation of an organization depends on the formation of personal relationships within the organization. We have proven that if companies listen to us with these questions, they will earn more money, because they will hire more effective people for the corresponding positions.

Which skills do you think helped you to become so successful in your field?

First of all, our team has worked very hard. We do very high-quality work, and we pay attention to what our customers want. We have found the way to promote what we know. One has to work very hard; 90 percent of ventures go bust.  At first,we have had both good and difficult moments, but when you get that first big client, everything comes together immediately. In our case, this big client was the government. We received an order from the American government.