The myth of the well-rounded leader

“We are looking for well-rounded leaders. Can you help us develop them?” is a request I have heard all too often from HR and senior executives over the 25 years I have been in talent and leadership development. The search for the ‘unicorn leader’ – the elusive person who is excellent at everything that goes on despite all the research that suggests that there is no such leader. As a result, leadership development practices continue to be built on shaky assumptions – the idea that leaders can be shaped into all-rounders, people who can be equally good at everything.
HR works with top executives to produce competency frameworks, or leadership behaviour models, reflecting the role and company standards against which leaders are selected, performance managed and developed. The guidance typically given for development conversations is that if leaders fall short on any of the competencies, they are sent on remedial training to ensure improvement. One example is emotional intelligence. Many HR and Talent professionals expect all leaders to be emotionally intelligent, and company-wide ‘sheep dip’ programs are rolled out with the aim of developing all leaders into emotionally intelligent Yoda-like beings. However, in most cases, these attempts fail miserably. Why? Because leaders are wired differently; different tasks and activities energise them and the reality is that many are not energised by emotional and relational activities in the same way their HR colleagues are.  Leaders like Steve Jobs and Churchill are great examples. Both were undeniably great leaders who brought about significant positive change in society and left strong legacies, however, neither were energised by people, nor were they particularly emotionally intelligent.

Leaders are by nature, spiky, they have great strengths and also great vulnerability, what we call “performance risks”. As management guru, Peter Drucker, pointed out in his book The Effective Executive, in 1967, “The idea that there are ‘well-rounded’ people, people who have only strengths and no weaknesses’ is a prescription for mediocrity if not incompetence. Strong people always have weaknesses too. Where there are peaks there are valleys.” He goes on the point out that the task of executives (and HR) is to discover people’s strengths and to make these as productive as possible in pursuit of the organisation’s goals. So, what are the implications of this for talent and leadership development principles and practices?

Help leaders discover their unique strengths

Understanding their ‘leadership edge’ is the first step in the leader’s journey to great leadership. Leaders need to first develop self-awareness and make the most of who they are at their best. They need to go beyond a simple understanding of their strengths by finding ways these can best be deployed to deliver maximum value to the organisation. Through on-the-job development, coaching, mentoring and training, they can stretch their effectiveness in these areas of strength to build skill and excellence where they can contribute the most.
Effective leaders know better than to try to be someone they are not. They stay true to who they are at their best and make sure they optimise their unique mix of strengths, skill and experience to achieve exceptional results.

However, weaknesses and other performance risks cannot be ignored.

Performance risks include limiting weaknesses, overdone strengths (or strengths that are overused or used in the wrong way and cause unintended negative outcomes) and sources of interference. The latter can be either internal (i.e., psychological blockers frustrating peak performance, such as self-limiting beliefs and poor self-confidence), or external such as an incompatible corporate culture or lack of sufficient resources.

We advocate three powerful strengths-based strategies for dealing with such risks: using your own strengths to compensate for risk areas, calling on colleagues in the team to complement you in areas where you are weaker and being deliberate in building new habits to mitigate areas of risk and prevent failure.

Stretch and optimise strengths to maximize contribution

The most effective leaders positively stretch themselves beyond their zone of comfort and do the same with their teams. They push the boundaries of thinking and possibility, looking for innovative ways of achieving the organisation’s goals, whilst strengthening their own leadership and learning.

These leaders know there is no “one size fits all” approach for getting the best from others. They discover their employees’ strengths and create an engaging and challenging environment that allows employees to use and stretch their strengths, empowering them by providing support and coaching to ensure people have the best chance of success.

Build complementary teams around strengths

Effective teamwork is a key imperative for leaders in order to do more with less, improve collaboration, raise performance and ensure the pace and quality of innovation is high.
Helping individuals identify their strengths and how these can best be deployed to contribute to team goals will create higher levels of clarity and accountability as well as promoting greater levels of autonomy.

Encouraging complementary partnering within the team, where team members support colleagues in areas where they are weaker or less developed with their standout strengths is also a powerful way to improve team morale, trust and effectiveness.

Building a high level of strengths awareness within the team also enables to team to adapt to changing goals, stakeholder needs and processes more quickly, as well as pinpointing strength and skill areas in the team that might be lacking to meet future requirements.

Build a positive culture of confidence and success

By focusing on leaders’ strengths and building strengths-based teams, organisations will create leaders who are more confident, resilient and engaged. This will fuel a more positive and peak performance organisation as research shows that when employees are encouraged to focus on their strengths every day, they are up to 7 times more engaged in their jobs. Engaged employees work harder and give more of themselves to the company which fuels a powerful, virtuous cycle of confidence and success. And we all know that the best talent is attracted to a successful and positive culture so the cycle is self-reinforcing, as we see with companies like Apple, Google, Innocent, Virgin and Facebook.

So how then do we build more emotionally intelligent organisations I hear you sceptical HR and Talent leaders ask. The solution is relatively straightforward. You identify leaders who are emotionally intelligent and are energised by strengths like empathy, self-improvement, compassion and collaboration and you coach and develop them to optimise these strengths in team meetings and daily conversations. Pairing these people with less emotionally intelligent colleagues and helping them understand the benefit of diverse perspectives and complementary partnering can also provide powerful mutual learning. Of course, if there are few of these strengths available in the team to begin with, you might need to hire them into the organisation to ensure a more diverse team covering all strength areas (Relational, Emotional, Thinking and Execution).

For a practical roadmap and tools to implement this strengths-based approach to leadership, buy our new book: Optimize Your Strengths: Use Your Leadership Strengths to Get the Best Out of You and Your Team. Buy it now

James Brook