Can an emphasis on strengths alone be risky – by giving a ‘get out of jail free’ card to leaders and giving them permission to overlook serious weaknesses?
By Judith Hirst, Head of Leadership Development
There is now a wealth of research and case studies that demonstrate the benefits of a strengths-based approach to leadership development. But can an emphasis on strengths alone be risky – by giving a ‘get out of jail free’ card to leaders and giving them permission to overlook serious weaknesses? Because although great strengths are correlated with effective leadership and high performance there are still “fatal flaws” that can and do derail leadership careers and cause a lot of damage to organisations and their people along the way.
So the savvy leader needs to be aware of these fatal flaws, how to spot them at an early stage and fix them before they trip them up.
When looking at what makes a great leader I must declare a preference to focus on strengths – and how individuals can make their top 3-4 strengths world class. It is the main focus of my work both with individuals and groups of leaders.
Donald O. Clifton, often considered to be the father of strength-based psychology, once said “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths — and can call on the right strength at the right time.”
And of course some weaknesses can be readily forgiven in light of outstanding strengths and some weakness can be overcome or neutralized by effective delegation. However, there are some flaws that are really negative and damaging to overall reputation, performance and career success and therefore should not be overlooked.
As a result of the research project undertaken by Zenger & Folkman for their book ‘The Extraordinary Leader’, they identified five fatal flaws that if left uncorrected will derail a leader’s career. Based on the results of over 200,000 360o feedback surveys conducted with over 20,000 different executives Zenger & Folkman discovered that individual leaders who regularly exhibit just ONE of these 5 different flaws would be seen as failing; “Possessing one or more of these (flaws)virtually makes it impossible for a person to be perceived as an effective leader.”
Interestingly the 5 Fatal Flaws identified could be considered as sins of omission rather than doing something negatively; a failure of awareness, being risk averse or an inability to learn and adapt. This means that individuals can easily overlook or be unaware of their failings leaving them uncorrected and storing up problems for the future. So what are the 5 Fatal flaws that we should all be looking out for and guarding against?
The 5 Fatal Flaws
1. Inability to learn from mistakes
Of course everyone makes mistakes and Zenger & Folkman’s research showed that “derailed executives made about the same number of mistakes as those whose careers continued onward and upward.” Failing leaders, however, tended to try to cover up their mistakes or place the blame on others rather than using setbacks or failures as a valuable learning experience. As a result they failed to learn from experience-often repeating the same mistakes time and time again.
2. Lack of core interpersonal skills and competencies
These might be considered to be ‘soft skills’ by some however Zenger Folkman found that “the lack of core interpersonal skills or essential ‘Emotional Intelligence’ cannot be off-set by any combination of intelligence, hard work, business acumen and administrative skill.”
They identify the “core interpersonal skills” as:
- Smiling when meeting and greeting people
- Paying attention to people when you talk to them – looking them in the eyes
- Taking the trouble to learn and use people’s names
- In conversation letting the other person know you are listening and seeking to understand them
- Avoiding dominating the conversation and taking up all the “air time.”
- Being sincerely curious and interested in other people’s ideas and activities
- Laughing at others’ jokes and attempts at humour.
- Giving praise for others’ hard work and effort
3. Lack of openness to new or different ideas
These are the leaders who frustrate team members by shooting down new ideas, who promote the ‘my way or the highway’ approach, stifling creativity and encouraging a culture where the ‘Yes Men’ thrive and the talented individuals take their leave. Over time this results in a lack of new thinking, stagnation and produces teams lacking in talent or the ability to think and act independently.
4. Lack of accountability
Leaders who fall into this trap tend to find fault in everybody else rather than stepping forward and accepting personal responsibility. There is always someone else to be blamed for shortcomings or lack of performance – their teams, colleagues in other departments, the Board – the list is endless.
Whilst effective leaders make decisions and accept responsibility for the results of those decisions and are also keen to share credit with team members and pass along praise and credit.
5. Lack of initiative
Lack of initiative is the failure to ‘make things happen’ – a focus on maintaining the status quo, playing it safe and keeping things moving gently along. Whereas effective leaders do not wait to see what happens or to be directed on a new course – they take the initiative even if that means taking a calculated risk. Effective leaders are always looking for opportunities to make a real difference, to test new ideas and find new ways of working to improve team and business performance.
An early warning system for Leaders
The biggest danger for any leader is that they are unaware of their flaws – allowing them to go unnoticed until they have become critical – and sometimes it is then too late to recover. It is all too easy to have personal blind spots and often team members, peers and even your own manager will not offer up the frank and honest feedback that you need.
A regular personal stock take is a useful first step to highlight areas for action. Even better however is to regularly seek and ask for feedback. 360 degree feedback surveys which are well targeted and well-delivered – then supported by coaching is perhaps a more reliable way to ensure that leaders maintain a realistic view of their strengths but also get an early warning of any fatal flaws that could trip them up.
How Greenbank can help…
If this is an area of interest to you, then we can help in a number of ways:
- We are accredited coaches for the Extraordinary Leader 360o tool and can work with you to get feedback using this comprehensive, benchmarked system
- We have our own 360o tool, PRISM that can be tailored for individuals who want to focus on specific areas
- We can provide a range of coaching and leadership programmes to cost-effectively build on leaders’ strengths and ‘inoculate’ them against the possibility of fatal flaws…
We try and be great listeners though as very client is different, so if you want an informal conversation, please contact us and we would be delighted to understand more about your own needs!
What are your views about the top leadership flaws?