Thunderbird's Dr. Suzanne Peterson, Associate Professor of Leadership

Dr. Suzanne Peterson has interviewed hundreds of leaders in business, politics, education, and sports. Most fall into just two categories: leaders who drive excellent results but fail to build followership, and leaders who inspire followership but fall short in results.

Peterson, an associate professor of leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management, says any of us might find these shortfalls with an honest look in the mirror. “Most of us lean to one side or the other,” she says. “But imagine approaching leadership with the mindset of, ‘I’m going to deliver excellence and I’m going to inspire followership.’”

As part of Thunderbird’s Global Speaker Series, Peterson drew a capacity crowd in June to hear her lecture, “Be the Leader You’d Follow: High-Impact Leadership.” She detailed the daily decisions made by great leaders to boost not only results but also reputation and loyalty.

It’s not enough just to execute well, Peterson says. The best leaders use a “toolkit of universal behaviors” that inspire followership, never losing sight of how they will be perceived.


“Approach leadership with the mindset of delivering excellence and inspiring followership.”  – Click to tweet

Peterson explained, “It’s 100 percent normal in the first phase of your career to be more focused on executing well – you’re certainly not credible if you’re not good at your job – but you will reach a point where you don’t get credit just for being good at your job. That’s expected. Who are you as a leader?”

Don’t fall into the ‘good fit’ trap

Understanding the qualities of effective leadership is important for becoming such a leader, and important for selecting such leaders. “We’ve discussed the everyday behaviors of leaders and how to balance followership and competence. So now, how do we approach that from a selection perspective – how do organizations select credible leaders today?”

The selection process can easily fall into the trap of focusing on how a candidate fits with the company. “Most organizations make the mistake of being too fit-driven,” she cautions. “They go on instinct, and then errors are made.”

“When selecting a leader, cultural fit is important, but not the most important.”  – Click to tweet

“Fit is important, but if you look for fit first, you fall in love with the candidate before you assess their true potential. And then it’s hard to convince yourself not to hire at that point.” Instead, Peterson and her colleagues and collaborators recommend first taking a hard look at the candidate’s judgment, skillfulness, and excellence. “After that, you can finally ask ‘Does he or she fit?’”


Predictors of potential

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“It should be in areas other than their job or what’s on their resume – because then you know they are flexible to new situations and can excel in multiple directions,” Peterson says.

Another predictor is found in a candidate’s character. “Look for people who volunteer their time to things outside of themselves such as charities or causes. They make the best collaborators.” In a job interview, everyone tries to claim they’re good in teams or at collaborating. How can you be sure that is true? It helps to ask, ‘When was the last time you contributed to something beyond yourself?’”

“It helps to ask a prospective candidate, ‘When was the last time you contributed to something beyond yourself?’”  – Click to tweet

Ultimately, finding credible leaders requires a selection process focused on key behaviors that Peterson described in her Global Speaker Series lecture: the ability to achieve excellent results while inspiring loyal followership. 

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