It was an eerie coincidence! Maybe it’s because Halloween is about to pounce on us …

I had just read my old colleague Jack Zenger, and his colleagues Joe Folkman and Scott Edinger’s excellent article in this month’s issue of Harvard Business Review. Entitled “Making Yourself Indispensible”, the article builds on the strong research and application work they’ve been doing over the past decade on developing extraordinary leadership skills. So I decided to write this blog about it. As I was getting started I got an email offering Joe Folkman as guest blogger with a piece on when to work on weaknesses.Joe Folkman

Since I have a weakness for believing there really aren’t many true coincidences in life, I had to take the offer. I hope this helps you to keep growing!

When Jack Zenger and I discovered that the key factor in leaders being extraordinary was the presence of strengths and not the absence of weakness, it fundamentally shifted our view about how leaders can improve. Our efforts to make leaders better had, in the past, only focused on fixing weaknesses.

 As we teach people about this research insight on building strengths, many have an “ah ha” experience which reinforces their intuition that it is our strengths that make us successful. People also discover that great leaders are not perfect. In fact they do have weakness, but no fatal flaws.

When great leaders have weaknesses, they don’t hurt them because their strengths are so profound. When a person has a profound strength, people only notice the strength. As many people leave the training, they remark that this principle of building on strengths was a significant revelation.

Recently a group of executives were interviewed about the impact of the Extraordinary Leader training session and every participant mentioned the building on strengths principal was the highlight of the training. As I am introduced, my company, Zenger Folkman, is frequently described as an organization that focuses on building strengths.

To be accurate, the next insight we describe after our research on building strengths is a discussion about fatal flaws. In a recent training session a leader asked me, “What is the priority between strengths and fatal flaws?” Fatal flaws always take the priority. As we review the 16 differentiating competencies with leaders, we reinforce that with only three strengths, a leader’s overall effectiveness rating goes to the 81st percentile, but with one or more fatal flaws, it falls to the 17th percentile.

The more research we do, the more the impact of strengths and fatal flaws become evident. The problem is that most people remember our insight about strength building and forget the fatal flaws. A more accurate description of Zenger Folkman is that we are the organization that focuses on building strengths if you don’t have a fatal flaw. 

Both concepts need to be kept in mind. Some people might have the assumption that fatal flaws occur when leaders are young and inexperienced. They assume that as a leader gains experience, they will no longer be plagued with the challenge of having fatal flaws. Unfortunately, this is not true. Frequently, leaders get moved or promoted into a new job where a competency that was not critical in the past becomes essential in their current position.

We define a fatal flaw as a competency in which you receive:

    • Strong negative feedback results (and/or poor performance review results)


    • Below average capability in an area that is mission-critical to your job

Being below average basically means that you perform this competency reasonably well and it may not even be considered a weakness, but when it becomes the center piece of a new job, that can be a problem. A leader can have a fatal flaw at any point in their career. When a competency is mission-critical, average performance is never good enough.

The longer I work, the more I notice that we need to be mindful of both strengths and fatal flaws. It is our strengths that set us apart and make us distinctive as leaders, but a fatal flaw can derail an otherwise successful career. Our advice once again, if you have a fatal flaw — FIX IT.

Joe Folkman is the co-founder and President of Zenger Folkman, a leadership development firm focused on building the strengths of individuals, teams, and organizations. Joe is a co-author of the recent Harvard Business Review article “Making Yourself Indispensable.” To learn more leadership tips from Joe, subscribe to his leadership blog or follow him on Twitter: @zengerfolkman.


Six Core Elements to Leading a Peak Performance Culture

My reciprocal post on Zenger/Folkman’s blog is now available. Click on Six Core Elements to Leading a Peak Performance Culture to read it.