Exceptional Leaders Aren't Well-RoundedI’ve been guilty of perpetuating the misconception of the well-rounded leader. Like many training and development professionals I used to believe that leadership skills development comes from assessing leaders against a leadership framework or competency model and developing an improvement plan to round out the flat or weak spots. But this long-held view is no longer supported by more recent research. And it fails the common sense test when we think back on our experience….

Think of the best leader you’ve ever known. What strengths made him or her really stand out? Typical responses often include outstanding communicator, superior strategic thinker, exceptional coach and developer of people, very high trust and integrity, extremely inspiring and motivating, stretching others to reach higher, brilliant technical/analytical skills, or excellent team builder. Often 3 or 4 of these skills done extraordinarily well lifted this leader to lofty heights.

Did he or she also have any weaknesses? Of course; they weren’t perfect — they were human. Responses sometimes include inattention to details, poor time management, moody, narrow focus, inflexibility, intolerance, weak technical/analytical skills, not a people person, or low charisma.

When we really analyze the outstanding leaders we’ve known very few are well-rounded. All have flat spots or weaker areas. But their strengths were so towering they overshadowed these weaknesses. We were willing to “cut them some slack” or accept — and even compensate for — their weaker areas in order to be elevated by their exceptional strengths. If, however, a weakness was big enough, it has the reverse effect and this person’s “fatal flaw” sinks them to the average or even worst leader categories.

Zenger Folkman’s research on this halo effect is very clear. You can read more in our white paper “Developing Strengths or Weaknesses: Overcoming the Lure of the Wrong Choice .” ZF Chief Operating Officer, Bob Sherwin just published an excellent article on “The Power of Counterintuitive Thinking in Leadership Development” in Chief Learning Officer magazine.

It’s time to shift thinking about leadership development from well-rounded to well-grounded — in strengths.