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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Positive Leadership: What makes a Great Leader?

What makes a great leader?  Here are three alternatives to consider:

Someone who has managed to overcome any weaknesses that she may have had.
Someone who is really well rounded and good at a large number of things.
Someone who is exceptionally good at a relatively small number of leadership competencies.

While there are good things to say about each of the alternatives above, the research is quite clear.  The last choice is the hands-down winner. Extraordinary leaders are those who possess and regularly utilise three or more powerful strengths.  There are those who have believed that there are other ways to get there. 

However, the data suggests that the first two items above simply do not work: 

Not possessing any failings or faults. 

(This is a bit complicated, because it is also true that extraordinary leaders most certainly have some failings and flat sides, but they don’t possess fatal flaws.)  You just can’t be awful at some leadership competency and still succeed in being a highly effective leader.

We all know horror stories about bad bosses.  These range from the boss who screams, shouts, berates and throws things across the room; to bosses who will never make a decision or take responsibility for their actions.  A currently popular TV show, The Office, painfully spoofs a bad boss who totally lacks self-awareness and constantly engages in highly inappropriate interactions with his subordinates. 

But let’s assume for a moment that we could eradicate these really bad behaviours. Would that create an inspiring, highly motivating leader?  The answer is obviously “No”.  Simply removing inappropriate behaviour brings you to ground zero.

Being exceedingly well rounded and good at the great majority of leadership competencies.

(Yes, that’s also better than not being good at a wide variety of leadership competencies.  But that does not cut it either.)

In most larger organisations that have existed for a decade or more, there is some very pleasant, generally well-liked manager who is also known as “good old ______.” (You can fill in the name.)  He doesn’t initiate new projects.  Or his group is performing adequately, but not brilliantly.  Nothing stands out about this individual, nor the performance of the group they lead.

We trust that this will be an encouraging message to most readers.


Because it says that a person doesn’t need to be outstanding at a wide range of competencies in order to be highly effective in a leadership role.

Instead, being really effective at a small number of competencies is all that is required.  Better yet, it doesn’t seem to make much difference which ones these are.  A wide variety of combinations work.  If someone is at the 90th percentile at displaying high integrity and honesty, and along with that also is at the 90th percentile at taking initiative, then 91% of the time that person will be in the top 10% of all leaders in their organisation.  The same thing is true for someone who communicates powerfully and prolifically and also sets stretch goals with the team that they manage, only their odds increase to 94% of the time.