There are a myriad of different approaches to leadership, many of which are highly prescriptive about the type of qualities and behaviours you need to be an effective leader. For example, so-called “trait-based approaches” emphasize the importance of qualities like charisma, persuasiveness and decisiveness in determining leadership success.
However, recent research suggests that successful leaders have very different personalities and qualities they draw on in order to achieve results. It seems that leaders are not well rounded people, nor do they possess the same qualities and competencies despite futile attempts by organisations to identify and develop well-rounded leaders using traditional competency-based approaches.
We recently commissioned a study by an independent psychometrics expert to examine this hypothesis and other findings from our StrengthscopeLeader™ data. A sample of 866 UK and international leaders from different sectors and leadership levels was included in the study. Some of the main findings were as follows:
Effective leaders possess different character strengths
We define strengths as underlying qualities that energise people and enable them to do great work. Our Strengthscope® assessment, which is the only strengths profiling system to have achieved the highly regarded British Psychological Society registered test status, measures 24 work-related strengths across four key energy and performance areas – Emotional, Relational Execution and Thinking.
The findings support the hypothesis that leaders have very different character strengths that they use to lead effectively. There is no one definitive set of strengths or one ‘best way’ they use to achieve their 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 were as follows:
- Leading: You take responsibility for influencing and motivating others to contribute to the goals and success of their team and organisation
- Collaboration: Working cooperatively with others to overcome conflict and build towards a common goal
- Decisiveness: You make quick, confident, and clear decisions, even when faced with limited information
However, 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.
High performing leaders learn to use their strengths more effectively
The research showed that, as expected, higher performers use their strengths more effectively than lower performers. They don’t try to be something they are not or succumb to the “jack of all trades, master of none” trap by trying to be equally effective across too many strength areas.
Some weaker areas are more common than others
The most common weaker areas for leaders in our sample were:
- Detail orientation: You pay attention to detail in order to produce high quality output, no matter what the pressures.
- Emotional control: You are aware of your emotional ‘triggers’ and how to control these to ensure you remain calm and productive.
- Relationship building: You take 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 potential weaker area and this weakness is even more common among high performers. Our own consulting and coaching experience suggests that leaders are often not energised by detail and checking the quality of work. Performance shortfalls can arise if they overlook the detail, particularly as they are often dealing with important matters where mistakes and errors are visible to senior and influential stakeholders. Of course, leaders cannot ignore this risk to performance otherwise they can easily under perform or derail. Using a strengths-based approach, we coach leaders not energised by detail to ensure they have people in their team who are detail oriented to ensure this aspect of the work isn’t neglected. However, leaders can’t always rely on others to cover for them in areas where they are weaker. They also need to consciously develop behaviors and habits to attend to the detail in order to mitigate risks to their success.
High performing leaders are more effective across core leadership habits
As well as discovering and optimising their strengths, the highest performing leaders learn to effectively apply four leadership habits – Sharing Vision, Sparking Engagement, Skilfully Executing, and Sustaining Progress. They learn to formulate and communicate a compelling vision, engage and develop their people, ensure effective implementation of the business plan and build a culture of success and sustainable progress.
These leadership habits can be learned by any leader through on-the job experience, coaching and co-worker feedback and support and training programs.
StrengthscopeLeader™ measures leaders’ effectiveness across these four habits using sixteen questions, each measuring crucial leadership behaviours backed by decades of research into leadership effectiveness.
Higher performers in the sample were rated significantly higher across all four leadership habit areas.
The most important leadership habit questions for the highest performers were:
- Promotes an open and respectful work environment where people can freely express their views and ideas (Sparking Engagement)
- Ensures a strong customer/service-based strategy that builds trust and loyalty (Sharing Vision)
- Encourages people to be open to change and develop their capabilities to meet future requirements (Sustaining Progress)
The most important item 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 of their own bad habits of talking too much and not actively listening and/or because the organisation’s culture and top leadership style doesn’t encourage inclusivity and open, honest discussion.
Many leaders 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 scoring among all sixteen suggests that leaders still struggle to deal with underperformance and attitude problems in a constructive, open and timely manner. This points to the need for more guidance, training and coaching support for leaders in this vital and challenging area.
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 co-workers, 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 play their strengths and do their best work. In other words, the old saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (widely attributed to management guru, Peter Drucker) might be sage advice after all.
If you would like to find out more about StrengthscopeLeader™ and how we partner with organisations to build positive and high performing cultures based on people’s strengths, please contact us.
StrengthscopeLeader™ measures your leadership strengths, habits and impact on key business outcomes combined with co-worker feedback on these areas. The world’s first strength-based 3600 degree profiler, StrengthscopeLeader™ is a powerful and positive tool that provides leaders with self-awareness and development areas to focus on, promoting strengths optimisation, performance improvement, and exceptional results. Read more about our strengths tests here.