Very Rare Leadership Summit OpportunityI’ve delivered hundreds of leadership workshops over the past few decades. Until our partnership with Zenger Folkman, these sessions were based on “timeless leadership principles” that encouraged participants to build their improvement plans around the weaker areas to round out and expand their leadership skills. That meant focusing on weaknesses.

Last week I delivered another of our rare public workshops (most are run in-house) on the groundbreaking strengths-based leadership development approach of The Extraordinary Leader. When asked to assess to what extent participants felt the session changed their thinking on leadership, most answered with a 5/5.

Participants identified three reasons for their shift in thinking:

1) Evidence-based leadership skills

Most leadership development efforts are built around a skills framework or leadership model. The key question is, how were these developed? Who decided on that particular set of skills and how was the decision made?

Often a model was chosen because a senior executive or development professional found it in a book or article, or saw a consultant present it at a conference. Or the organization decided to adapt a leadership framework from an association or company that looked good and seemed to fit.

What’s missing is proof that these are the competencies that truly matter. Where is the empirical data that these are the key behaviors that have the greatest impact on employee engagement, attraction and retention, service levels, quality, innovation, safety or productivity?
Drawing on a database of over 50,000 leaders, Zenger Folkman has pinpointed the critical leadership skills that have high statistical correlations with results.

I recently wrote about this in my column in Canadian Healthcare Manager. You can read more about this approach at Leadership Lessons from Evidence-Based Medicine and Evidence Based Leadership in the Healthcare Organization.

2) A personalized path to extraordinary leadership

Most leadership competency models weight all skills and underlying behaviors equally. Some models layer the competencies across organizational levels, starting with front-line staff and moving up to supervisors, managers, and executives. Implicit in this approach is the message that outstanding leaders excel at the broadest number of these skills.

This “Super Leader” model doesn’t account for vast variances in individual preferences among leaders or their widely differing functions. Each of us is a unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses. We have work areas that play to our passions and turn us on, and areas that are a real chore and turn us off. One-size-fits-all competency models don’t account for those differences.

Research now shows that leaders who consistently rated in the 80th to 90th percentiles of effectiveness only need to excel at three to five of 16 key competencies. So leaders can build from good to great the skills that are their natural strengths, that they’re most energized about developing further.

3) Building on strengths can triple improvement levels

As I’ve been for decades of my workshops, most of us unconsciously equate improvement, development, and personal growth with finding and fixing weaknesses. Improving low marks is deeply socialized in us, going back to school report cards. When a leader gets a feedback report on his or her leadership skills, the natural instinct is to skip past positive ratings and look at “where I need to improve.”

Research from the emerging fields of positive psychology and strengths-based leadership shows that leaders who focus on their weaknesses consistently create weaker development plans, allocate less of their time to personal growth, and abandon training efforts more quickly. Zenger Folkman found executives working on weaknesses reported their leadership improvement efforts had minimal impact on team and organizational results, and even less effect on the commitment or engagement levels of their direct reports.

A series of studies examined the impact of leaders who chose to fix weaknesses versus building on existing strengths. 12 to 18 months later, the leaders who magnified their strengths showed two to three times more improvement than those who worked on fixing their weaknesses!

You can read more about these three compelling shifts in traditional leadership development approaches at Leadership Competency Models: Why Many Are Failing and How to Make them Flourish.

You can also participate in The Extraordinary Leader workshop and hear how General Mills, The Gap, Safeway, and Symantec are revolutionizing their leadership development using the new strengths-based leadership development system. I hope you can join me, Jack Zenger, Joe Folkman, in picturesque Park City, Utah at the end of July. See my recent blog Very Rare Leadership Summit Opportunity for more information.