The myth of the well-rounded leader

It’s performance appraisal time already for one of my clients. Managers are busy assigning individual ratings and reflecting on how people have achieved the things they were aiming for 12 months ago(!). A common part of this process is assessing performance against a prescribed list of behavioural competencies. Underpinning these competencies is an assumption: that to be a high performer, an individual should be good across the board, especially as a leader. No major flaws and a good balance of interpersonal and critical thinking skills. Decisive and action-oriented, but also strategic and non-directive, in equal measure. But what if that was a recipe for the “bland leading the bland” as Marcus Buckingham1, bestselling author and behaviour analysis expert, puts it?

Organisational practices like performance management processes, interview criteria and talent management systems all reinforce the need to be good across a broad range of factors. We hear it in stories too, about leaders with vision that are infallible and have no weaknesses. Incredible managers who know exactly what to do even in the most unprecedented of situations. Passion and a strong work ethic can overcome gaps or challenges of any kind …until they can’t. If this year teaches us anything about the world of work, it’s that existing organisational practices can be challenged and changed, and for the better.

Why is striving to be a well-rounded leader not necessarily a good thing?

Watch out for the significant downsides of trying to cover all bases. Here are three important unintended, but very real, issues that I have observed in my 20 years developing leaders:

  1. Lack of psychological safety as people feel reluctant to reveal weaknesses or disclose mistakes. Why should they when the leader doesn’t seem to have any? This makes it risky for people to put forward new ideas or alternatives and seriously stifles innovation.
  2. Failure to delegate and empower others (which is crucial for highly-skilled, technical professionals). All too often, leaders can become a bottleneck for decision making, which puts them under more pressure and frustrates everyone else.
  3. Struggle to really connect with people and create a foundation of trust and openness. With rising workplace mental health issues, and fewer opportunities to talk face to face, the importance of talking frankly about how things are going personally and professionally is hard to underestimate.

What is the alternative to being a well-rounded leader?

“The best people are spiky” (Marcus Buckingham1). Outstanding performers in any field of practice do not fit a mould, and in fact have clearly unbalanced attributes. Rafael Nadal’s left-handedness is so dominant that he literally runs around his backhand. He plays to his strengths to get results.

This is not just a feature of elite sports. Zenger and Folkman2 have carried out extensive research on leadership and their analysis of 360 assessments across 100,000 leaders is conclusive. According to them a “lack of weakness is not a distinguishing feature of the best leaders”. For clarity, this does not mean ignoring critical weaknesses (Nadal’s backhand is not an Achilles heel). Their research shows clearly that the most effective leaders, globally and across industries, those in the top quartile of performers, have a small number of standout strengths.

One of the key differences between leadership and tennis of course, is that leadership is all about the performance of others, not your own: it is a team sport. As a leader, you can call upon your team members and peers to bring their unique talents to any problem or crisis. This idea of ‘strengths-based team working’ not only gets the best from others, it also enables you as a leader to spend time using your own unique strengths. Using your strengths is energising, and evidence shows there are a number of benefits, including feeling happier, having more self-esteem, confidence and energy, less stress, and faster learning3.

This tells us something profound about being an authentic leader. It is a liberating way of overcoming the difficulties in sustaining performance and energy during extremely testing times.

About the Author

Andy Jenkins, MCIPD, is the Co-Founder of My Leadership Strengths and designer of the Developing Leaders in Health 360 Assessment


References:

1 Nine Lies About Work (2019) by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall