Written by: Revel Gordon
I’m happy to bring you this insightful guest post from Revel Gordon. Revel explores the five levers of leadership and how you can identify your primary areas of focus to strengthen your leadership and overall impact. Revel is an experienced corporate leader and accomplished executive coach who works with clients globally. He is also on the board of the International Coach Federation in Australasia of which I am a member.
“I’m thinking of doing a public speaking course.” said the senior executive.
“Why?” I replied.
“Because I hate speaking in front of large groups, and I want to improve my leadership.”
“Do you actually want to do the course?”
“Not at all. In fact, the idea terrifies me.”
I’ve had countless similar conversations, and the reality is this: trying to get good at things we have no natural talent for or desire to do is tough – and ineffective – way to improve leadership performance. The fastest and most enjoyable path to leadership greatness is not to focus on improving our weaknesses, but rather in flexing our strengths. But not just any strengths: we should focus on developing natural strengths that also correlate to effective leadership.
Which strengths are those? Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman answered that question their landmark study titled “The Extraordinary Leader”. They looked at what differentiated the top 10% from the bottom 10% of leaders, as judged by their colleagues. (Leadership is something that can only be measured in the eyes of others. I might think I’m the second coming of Nelson Mandela or Jack Welch, but if everyone around me sees me as a poor leader…then a poor leader I am!).
Zenger and Folkman’s original study included over 237,000 survey responses on more than 26,000 leaders, so their findings are robust. And what they found is fascinating. They identified just sixteen strengths that differentiate the very best leaders from the very worst ones, grouped into five broad categories.
The Five Levers of Leadership
1. Displaying high integrity and honesty
B. PERSONAL CAPABILITY
2. Technical and professional expertise
3. Solving problems and analysing issues
5. Practising self-development
C. FOCUS ON RESULTS
6. Focus on results
7. Establish stretch goals
8. Take responsibility for outcomes
D. INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
9. Communicating powerfully and prolifically
11. Building relationships
E. LEADING ORGANISATIONAL CHANGE
12. Developing others
14. Developing strategic perspectives
15. Championing Change
16. Connect internal groups with the outside world
If you are ranked in the top 10% of the norm group for just one of these sixteen strengths, you will likely be in the top 36% of leaders. If you’re in the top 10% for three of these strengths, you’ll likely be in the top 19% of leaders.
Stop and think about what this means.
Imagine you said to yourself: “I want to be in the top 20% of leaders.” One way you could do this is to improve your performance across all 16 categories, so that you were in the 80th percentile for all of them. However, if you look at the 16 strengths, it is almost certain that many of these are not natural gifts of yours, and dramatically improving your performance in them would be a challenging, painful, and probably fruitless exercise.
Or…you could pick three strengths that you really enjoy anyway, and focus on getting really, really great at them. You’d achieve precisely the same result. Which approach appeals more? Clearly the latter, right?
There is one caveat to Zenger and Folkman’s findings. They identified five ‘fatal flaws’ that are leadership derailers. If you have a significant issue with any of these, you should work to improve that area with the aim of not necessarily being brilliant at it, but at least getting good enough so that the issue is ‘taken off the table’.
The Five Fatal Flaws
1. Inability to learn from mistakes
2. Lack of core interpersonal skills and competencies
3. Lack of openness to new or different ideas
4. Lack of accountability
5. Lack of initiative
If a leader has one of these fatal leadership flaws and doesn’t address the issue, then they are likely to be a poor leader, no matter how effective they are in the sixteen strengths.
If you’re interested in being a more effective leader, you might start by looking through the sixteen strengths listed above and circle the two or three that you feel are natural gifts of yours. It can also be useful to ask a few people who you trust and who know you well to get their perspectives. Often, our true strengths come so naturally to us that we can take them for granted. Think Roger Federer’s forehand or Warren Buffet’s facility with analysing businesses. Flexing these gifts probably feels like breathing to them, yet they leave the rest of us ‘mere mortals’ shaking our heads in wonder! It can be pleasantly surprising when we ask others who know us well “What do you think my greatest strengths are?”. Often, the answer leaves us thinking “Really?! But that’s so easy!”. It only seems easy because you’re so naturally good at it.
Once you’ve identified two to three core strengths from the list, come up with one or two actions for each of them that a) are likely to further improve your capability in that area and b) excite you! Then go ahead and take the actions, and then repeat the cycle. Regularly and consciously leaning into natural strengths that correlate with leadership effectiveness is the fastest path to leadership greatness. And, you’ll enjoy the journey along the way!
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