How You Can Excel As A Leader - Focus on your strengths and avoid five "fatal flaws."

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2004

If you want to succeed at your on what you do well. And....stop doing things that are career de-railers. It's a commonly held belief that executive development is a process where you try to develop an executive's weaknesses and build on strengths. You can spin your wheels forever, however, if you focus too much of your time on developing weak and underdeveloped traits whether you are a derailed executive wanting to get back on track or if you are a star performer (Tiger Woods type) who wants to play at the top of your game. Research seems to support that that the best use of leadership development resources is to help executives develop and fine-tune their strengths. (Please refer to my past executive briefing titled "Accelerating Executive Effectiveness" where I talk more about this - link to archive edition below.) However, there are some specific competencies that are more useful to develop than others and warrant your attention and effort. And - very importantly - you should avoid five "fatal flaws."

Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman discovered in their research for the book, "The Extraordinary Leader," that you should focus most of your energy on developing strengths that fall within five competency clusters comprising 16 different behaviors/competencies. They analyzed data from 200,000 360-degree (multi-rater) feedback results pertaining to over 25,000 managers. In some cases they also had performance data that they could correlate with the 360-degree feedback data. They looked at the top ten or twenty per cent of those managers and compared them to the bottom ten or twenty per cent. They wanted to know what separated the top performers from the bottom performers. They found consistent differences.

The differences clustered into five areas:

  1. Character: "Character means integrity, honesty, doing what you say you are going to do, and predictability."
  2. Personal competence: "This includes things like problem solving skills, technical proficiency, and being receptive to new ideas."
  3. Driving for results: "This competencey includes setting lofty goals, having a clear view of what needs to be accomplished, being very focused on that and taking responsibility to achieve those goals."
  4. Interpersonal competency: "This means inspiring and motivating other people. It means being perceived as a good team player. It is being a prolific and powerful communicator."
  5. Leading change: "Leading change means having a vision of the future, having your antenna out to look at what is going on in the outside world." Interestingly, their "research suggests that maybe five per cent of the leaders in the organization ought to have this cluster of skills at a very high level. However, not every leader in an organization has to be leading change all the time."

It's their opinion that you should focus on building on any strength you have within those five competency clusters. They define "strength" as having a competency in the 80th or 90th percentile range. That means that you would be rated by others (e.g., 360 multi-rater survey) in the top 20 percent compared to the results of the normative population of executives on the specific competencies that make up these clusters. If you had no strengths at the 90th percentile level, you would be down in the bottom third of all leaders. If you had one "strength" above the 90th percentile, you would jump up to the 60th percentile of leaders. Two or three strengths above the 90th percentile would bring you up to the 80th percentile of leaders. What was really astonishing to Zenger and Folkman was that the presence of just a small number (3) of strengths could make a terrific leader. It didn't take 16 strengths for an executive to be perceived as a highly effective leader.

One conclusion they came to from their research is that "...getting a little bit better at things that you are average at or bad at isn't going to do anything." There isn't much leverage associated with working on your average or below average skills. It isn't going to change your performance enough to push you up to the level where you will be considered "exceptional or strong" in the eyes of others (your raters). "The better tactic is to focus on the things that you are somewhat good at and passionate about. You are more likely to get better at those competencies and raising those up will really make a big difference. "

So in practical terms that means, for example, if you are an executive who is somewhat good at goal setting and driving for results but, poor at problem solving, concentrate your time and energy at getting even better at the "driving for results" group of competencies and delegate the tactical problem solving to someone or a team that is good at that.

We don't want to forget that their research also uncovered five "fatal flaws" or career derailers. These are behaviors that you should change or stop doing. "The fatal flaws include:

  1. Inability to learn from mistakes
  2. Lack of core interpersonal skills and competencies.
  3. Lack of openness to new or different ideas.
  4. Lack of accountability.
  5. Lack of initiative

What is interesting about the five fatal flaws, according to Zenger, is that these traits reflect a "pattern of inactivity." "It is not the pattern of someone who is doing too much of something, but the pattern of someone doing way too little." In my experience, #4, not taking responsibility (or excessive defensiveness) and #2, inability to effectively relate to people are the most frequent issues I encounter with executives who are referred for coaching. And...of those, "not taking responsibility" (excessive defensiveness) is the most difficult to turn around because, I believe, it's a symptom of deep-seated insecurity. And, to make matters even more difficult, those folks frequently come across as super confident when in fact they are really insecure. They overcompensate. How do you help someone who can't admit they need help? It's very difficult, if not impossible, to help someone who is so insecure that they have built up an elaborate defense system of "I'm right, you're wrong," and has climbed their way to the top over the bodies of others whom they've slain (so to speak) to get there.

Enough's to building on strengths!