• Glenn Price

What Is Leadership?

Leadership development has been stuck for a long time. The most fundamental questions are still in dispute. For example: What is leadership? In thousands of books on the subject, we have yet to find two that use the same definition. Is it genetically hardwired into some people but not others? There are strong advocates of both positions about leaders being “born or made.”

How can it be developed? What methods really work? Certainly, leadership is a complex topic.

Making The Complex Simple

Success in understanding any complex field requires researchers to apply scientific rigour and then share their findings.

For the past ten years, one of our partners, Dr. Folkman from Zenger-Folkman, has led a team that has been analysing a substantial database of some 1,000,000 feedback assessments (commonly called 360-degree feedback reports) correlating to approximately 100,000 managers. These questionnaires are collected within hundreds of companies. 64 percent of the data collected originates from North America; while 36 percent originates from Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In many cases, we also have concrete performance metrics on these same managers, allowing us to compare their “hard” results with what some might call “soft” 360-degree feedback.

Five Conclusions From Our Research

Our data-driven approach to understanding leadership has led to a number of unexpected insights. Here are five of our fundamental findings.

1. We need to set our sights higher.

Earlier in his career, one of the authors co-founded a highly successful supervisory skills training firm. The firm’s underlying objective was to teach frontline managers the basic skills required of a leader. Because so many supervisors lacked these fundamentals, merely getting them to the point of adequacy turned out to be a worthwhile achievement. In hindsight, the skills provided stopped short of the ultimate target: to produce extraordinary leaders who, in turn, produce extraordinary results for the company. Many of today’s organisations fall into a similar trap. They focus on under-performers with the intent to bring them up to an adequate level. Conversely, others invest heavily in their high potential managers and provide few developmental resources for everyone else, thus limiting the number of extraordinary leaders the firm could potentially have. The research suggests that we’ve been putting our leadership development emphasis on the wrong populations. Rather than focusing mostly on the top or bottom end, our efforts should be directed to the large group in the middle. Building these “good” leaders’ capability to behave like “top tier” leaders produces results that are far beyond incremental.

2. We need to stop emphasising weaknesses.

Future leaders learn at a young age that the way to improve themselves is to fix their weaknesses. When leaders receive a 360-degree feedback report, they tend to ignore the data on their strong points in favour of an in-depth analysis of their shortcomings. They have developed a bone-deep belief that if they raise those lower scores, they will be better leaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. A caveat is in order here. Our research identified one situation in which working on weaknesses is the right thing: when the leader possesses what could be termed a “fatal flaw.” All leaders have some areas where they’re not so strong. Such “rough edges” aren’t a problem if the leader has outstanding strengths that compensate. But if the shortcomings are so serious that they prevent a leader from being recognised for his or her strengths, they become a brick wall. The leader cannot move forward until this wall is torn down.

3. Leaders need to fix fatal flaws.

When we think of someone who is a bad boss, we have images of rude behaviour: people being berated in public, someone shouting and pounding the table, or the boss who takes credit for the good work of subordinates while blaming them for any mistake that is made. Occasionally, you still hear of a manager who displays such boorish, childish and uncouth behaviour. However, these are not the most frequent cause for a leader possessing a fatal flaw. Instead, fatal flaws have a common thread. They are “sins of omission,” resulting from inaction, risk aversion, and a “status quo” mentality. The message is clear: Playing it safe is perhaps the riskiest thing a leader can do. Better to get out and make something happen than be perceived as a conservative, careful non-contributor.

4. We need to invest more in identifying and developing strengths. Being an extraordinary leader doesn’t mean doing 50 things reasonably well; it means doing 5 things extremely well. A major discovery from our research was that great strength in a relatively small number of competencies catapults a person into the top tier of their organisation. The implications are revolutionary. Rather than spend time in bringing up low scores (as long as they’re not “fatal flaws”), leaders get far greater ROI by choosing an area of moderately high skill and ratcheting it significantly upward. When a leader develops five competencies to a “top 10 percent” level of proficiency (i.e., a degree of competence displayed by the best leaders in the organisation), then this person will join that elite group.

Our Conclusions

The ExtraOrdinary Leader research provides fresh, new insights into answering the question what is leadership and leadership development. Like most research, it pushes out the perimeter of the circle of knowledge. Just beyond the circle, however, is the vast expanse of unanswered questions. Our hope is that many more students of leadership will approach this extremely important topic with scientific rigour. We hope more professionals will collect data with reasonable precision from a variety of organisations.

We are convinced that, to a great degree, leaders can be made. Genetic make-up is not the main determinant of great leadership, but it accounts for roughly one-third of the traits and behaviours that define exceptional leaders. We acknowledge that much of leadership development happens casually and informally as people work. But we are not dissuaded from believing that intense bursts of structured development can have a powerful effect in creating a new mindset and new skills. Just as formal classroom development can greatly accelerate the progress of newly minted supervisors, good science will continue to be of enormous help in our quest to develop extraordinary leaders.

Our strengths-based leadership development programs are built on research gathered by Zenger Folkman from more than 850,000 individual 360-degree assessments. LeaderSHAPE Consulting leadership training programs are packed with action-oriented information grounded in hard science and proven to increase leadership effectiveness.

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