Research Alert – This is what makes an effective leader

Podcast transcript:

Strengths-based leadership: it matters not what you have but what you do with it!

A little while back, Strengthscope commissioned a study by an independent psychometrics expert and researcher based out of the University of Surrey to examine findings from our StrengthscopeLeader™ data. The research explored:

  1. Whether leaders possess similar, or different, strengths
  2. Whether there are any patterns in what drains leaders
  3. Which leadership behaviours result in the highest ratings of leadership effectiveness
  4. Which leadership behaviours leaders struggle with the most

The study drew from a sample of 866 UK and international leaders from different sectors and leadership levels.  I want to walk you through that research right now.

The study found that 1. Successful leaders have very different strengths that they draw on to achieve results, 2. That it matters more how you use your strengths and not whether you have specific strengths, 3. That to be rated as an effective leader, you need to show breadth of behaviour across 4 key areas and that 4. The highest predictor of leadership effectiveness as judged by feedback providers is when leaders are focused on creating a highly motivating work culture.

  1. Effective leaders do have different strengths

We define strengths as underlying qualities that energise us and that we are really good at or have the potential to become really good at. Strengthscope® (the only strengths assessment to have achieved the globally recognised standard of registered test status with the British Psychological Society) measures 24 work-related strengths across four key areas – Emotional, Relational, Execution and Thinking strengths.

The study findings showed that there is no one definitive set of strengths or one ‘best way’ leaders use their strengths to achieve results. Leaders have different strengths that they apply to find their own pathways to success.

The most commonly-reported strengths for the highest performing group (measured in terms of 1-10 ratings of effectiveness by peers, direct reports and seniors and the high performing group averaging 8 or above) were as follows:

  • Leading: Taking responsibility for influencing and motivating others to contribute to the goals and success of the team and organisation
  • Collaboration: Working cooperatively with others to overcome conflict and build towards a common goal
  • Decisiveness: Making quick, confident, and clear decisions, even when faced with limited information.

But… and it’s a big but… differences between the frequencies of these strengths in the top performing group versus the overall sample were too small to be of any statistical significance.

And what that means in plain English is that highly effective leaders tend to use a whole range of different strengths to meet their goals.

So effective leaders are behaving authentically, i.e. they are using the strengths they have to get the job done.

  1. Effective leaders use their strengths more effectively, whatever those strengths may be

Our research found that higher-performing leaders use their strengths more effectively than lower performers, as judged by the people they work most closely with. They don’t try to be something they are not by trying to be equally effective across too many strength areas.

This adds a new dimension to authentic leadership: ‘smart authenticity’. Effective leaders aren’t just ‘being themselves’ 100% of the time without consideration of their context and the people around them. No, they are seen to be using their strengths more effectively, which means that they are being themselves, but in a way that reflects their context. They are being authentic but in a smart way.

This aligns with recent research which shows that using strengths is most impactful when applied with a specific context in mind, i.e. when application of strengths is both intentional and context-specific.  Adapting their strengths to their environment and context marks out a highly effective leader group from the rest.

  1. Some leadership drainers are more common than others

The most common ‘drainers’ (i.e. those areas that sucked away energy from our leadership sample and which may point towards weaker areas, performance-wise) were:

  • Detail orientation: Paying attention to detail in order to produce high quality output, no matter what the pressures
  • Emotional control: Awareness of your emotional ‘triggers’ and how to control these to ensure you remain calm and productive
  • Relationship building: Taking steps to build networks of contacts and act as a ‘hub’ between people you know.

Around 30% of the sample reported Detail orientation as a drainer and this is even more common among high performers. Our experience suggests that leaders are often not energised by detail and checking the quality of their work or the work of others. Of course, leaders cannot ignore this risk to performance if it’s possible that it might cause them to derail. So there are (at least) two options here: 1. As a leader, to ensure you have people in your team who are detail oriented to ensure this aspect of the work isn’t neglected.  2. Consciously developing detail-orientation skills to limit major risks to your success.

  1. High performing leaders are more effective across all four StrengthscopeLeader™ leadership habit areas

Our StrengthscopeLeader™ tool, as well as assessing leadership strengths, also looks at a range of behaviours, or habits, spread across four domains: Sharing Vision, Sparking Engagement, Skilfully Executing, and Sustaining Progress.

As well as using their strengths effectively, the highest performing leaders learn to effectively apply four leadership habits. So, they learn to formulate and communicate a compelling vision (Sharing Vision), engage their people with that vision through effective communication (Sparking Engagement), ensure effective implementation of the business plan (Skilfully Executing) and build a culture of success and sustainable progress (Sustaining Progress).

These leadership behaviours or habits can be developed by any leader through on-the job experience, coaching and co-worker feedback and support and training programmes.

  1. Higher performers in the sample were rated more highly across certain behaviours

Our research found that the most effective leaders, as rated by their stakeholders, were those who were able to:

  • Promote an open and respectful work environment where people can freely express their views and ideas (Sparking Engagement)
  • Ensure a strong customer/service-based strategy that builds trust and loyalty (Sharing Vision)
  • Encourage people to be open to change and develop their capabilities to meet future requirements (Sustaining Progress).

The most important area involves the leader respecting people and giving them the space and freedom to voice their ideas and perspectives. In our experience, many leaders find this challenging to do, either because they’re too one-directional in their communication and don’t actively listen and/or because the organisation’s culture and top leadership style doesn’t encourage inclusion and open, honest discussion.

  1. Many leaders still find it challenging to deal with poor performers

The lowest-rated leadership habit across the entire sample was:

  • Takes decisive action to deal with performance shortfalls and unproductive behaviour (Skilfully Executing).

The fact that this item was the lowest rated suggests that leaders struggle to deal with underperformance in an appropriate and timely way. They find feedback difficult, particularly when it comes to poor performance. To overcome this, more effort is required from leaders and from organisations to provide the right support for managers to learn these skills, as well as supporting leaders in creating high performance cultures where poor performance just won’t be tolerated.

  1. Creating a highly motivating culture is a strong predictor of leadership effectiveness

The ability to create a positive and highly motivating work environment was the most important predictor of overall leadership effectiveness, as rated by their stakeholders, in the research. The second most important predictor was reliable delivery of planned business results.

This finding suggests that in order to achieve strong results, leaders should ensure they invest time and energy in creating an engaging and positive work culture where people feel motivated and supported to use their strengths and do their best work.

In conclusion – strengths-based leadership is real and it has real-world consequences

Our research provides several indicators as to how leaders can become more effective:

  • Know your strengths and use them intentionally in ways that reflect your context
  • Get real about your risks and manage them effectively
  • Behaviour matters – work to develop positive leadership habits to be a high performer
  • Learn how to deal decisively with poor performance
  • Focus on creating a positive, open, trusting and psychologically safe culture.

Follow the five tips above and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a leader that others will choose to be led by. And you’ll 100% find your way into the ‘high performing leader’ category. Till next time, stay strong.