Extraordinary leaders aren’t always charismatic. Rather, they produce outstanding results, ranging from greater profitability to better customer experiences and higher levels of employee commitment. On every important business metric, they have the knack of producing better numbers.

The most powerful surrogate measure for leaders who produce good results is a 360-degree assessment, which collects data from subordinates, peers and boss. To illustrate the predictive power of 360-degree assessments, below is a graph showing assessment results from over 65,000 leaders. The horizontal axis shows their effectiveness, and the vertical axis represents the employee engagement levels of their direct reports. The least effective leaders have direct reports with engagement levels at the 20th percentile, while the most effective leaders are above the 80th percentile. Similar studies show that leadership effectiveness is directly connected to improved profitability, customer satisfaction and discretionary effort and reduced turnover. In other words, better leaders produce much better results.

Leadership Effectiveness versus Employee Engagement

5 Leadership Strengths

Based on data collected from over one million assessments of leaders from all corners of our globe and from all industries, one consistent fact emerges: Extraordinary leaders have five or more leadership strengths. In this case, leadership strengths are behaviors recognized in virtually all cultures as generating ideal results — for example, focusing on results, effectively relating to colleagues, exhibiting integrity and leading change.

Importantly, leaders need not be superhuman and perfect at everything. They just need to be good at five or more. In addition, not all behaviors that are positive when used in moderation, or in specific circumstances, are genuine leadership strengths. For example, being assertive can be effective when used in moderation and in the right circumstances, but unbridled, it can leave in its wake broken glass and people. True strengths, on the other hand, cannot be overused. They need to be balanced with other strengths, but we cannot have too much integrity or be too effective of a problem-solver.

The other major characteristic of extraordinary leaders is that their strengths are aligned with the organization’s needs. After all, leaders are hired to produce outcomes. Because those outcomes vary from organization to organization and from functional area to functional area, the leader’s strengths must be a good fit with their organization’s goals. Leaders can ask their organizations to help them shore up any weaknesses, but only prima donnas expect the show to revolve around them rather than pitching in and carrying their share of the load.

Developing Leadership Strengths

Some have argued that leadership strengths are genetically wired attributes that you are either born with or develop in childhood. But research shows that we can consciously select the attributes and behaviors we want to develop. Examples abound of individuals selecting a behavior to develop and succeeding in doing so. Leaders can become more proficient at a strength they deliberately choose in areas such as strategic thinking or innovation.

Leaders need not be constrained by taking only obvious, linear development steps. Many athletes pursue cross-training, because it helps them excel in their selected sport. A long-distance runner may cycle or swim. A tennis player may lift weights. Football coaches have required their linemen to take ballet classes to improve their footwork. Similarly, leaders can enhance a specific leadership skill by practicing a related one. Here are some interesting examples:

  • To learn to communicate powerfully and prolifically, leaders might involve others. We often associate effective communication with the “pitch” side of the equation, and this activity suggests that the “catch” side is equally important.
  • Emphasizing speed is a powerful companion behavior to taking initiative. In fact, people who are highly proficient at one are also often proficient at the other.
  • A person wanting to become more effective in creating and implementing a clear strategy for his or her organization would be well advised to meet with more customers. Understanding the customers’ challenges and how they use the company’s products and services can help the leader develop a better strategic perspective.

Leaders should not feel that they are alone in their quest to develop their leadership ability. Organizations play an important role in creating the environment where effective leadership development occurs, and a successful leadership development initiative includes six main ingredients:

  • It tailors activities based on the organization and its needs.
  • It increases the scale and scope of leadership development. Current programs reach far too few people and reach them far too long after they are promoted into leadership positions.
  • It involves senior executives in leadership development activities. This must not remain a learning and development (L&D)-initiated and L&D-driven activity. It succeeds only when the line managers feel ownership.
  • It uses powerful, behavior-changing methods. Leadership effectiveness is all about better behavior. It does not occur when people listen to lectures, read articles and have intellectual discussions. It demands implementation and practice, followed by feedback that ensures the individual has the competence and confidence to use his or her new behavior.
  • It integrates leadership development concepts into all human resources (HR) systems. It makes no sense to develop a competency model of leadership to use only in occasional development sessions for the leadership team. It’s better to embed the competency model into the recruiting, selection, onboarding, performance management, promotion and compensation systems that permeate the business. Only then does the competency model have teeth, and only then does everyone take it seriously.
  • It includes extensive follow-up and sustainment activity. One of the common complaints about training programs is that leadership development is “one and done.” Unless there are follow-up sessions, leadership development has a short half-life.

When organizations incorporate these elements in their overall leadership development efforts, they can achieve dramatically positive results. Unfortunately, cherry-picking one or two elements that the organization likes does not lead to great success. All of these ingredients for the recipe are necessary for the end product to turn out well.

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