Are You an ‘Exceptional' Leader - Does It Even Matter?

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Investing in Leadership Development Pays by Joseph Folkman co-author of, "How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success By Magnifying Your Strengths ."

"How to Be Exceptional" by John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman, Robert H. Sherwin Jr., Barbara A. Steel
"How to Be Exceptional" by John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman, Robert H. Sherwin Jr., Barbara A. Steel

Many of us are familiar with the experience of having a new leader join an organization, and suddenly everything in the organization improves.

Energy increases. Pride in the organization rises, the effort and dedication of individuals increases, and greater results are achieved, even if the company was doing well.

Perhaps you’ve also had the opposite experience, where things were going reasonably well and then a new leader arrived.

Then things fell apart.

High performers started quitting, conflicts increased, work seemed much less important and you were not having fun. Colleagues skulked. Satisfaction decreased. Criticism of senior leaders grew rampant. Results began to slide, revenues diminished, and fellow employees became the cause of the problem just as much as the economy or market conditions.

Most people know strong leadership when they see it. But interestingly, it’s now possible to measure leadership effectiveness as well. We can also measure the connection between leadership effectiveness and organizational outcomes, including profit. This is the focus of our newest book on leadership development: "How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success By Magnifying Your Strengths ."

Straight to the Bottom Line – Your Company’s Revenues Lie in the Hands of Your Leaders

What’s the single most effective way to increase the revenue of your organization? Increase the skills of your leaders. These are the results our own organization has proven by compiling the data from more than a decade of analysis using 360-degree evaluation reviews.

Our organization, Zenger Folkman , is a pioneer in the concept of strengths-based leadership. For the past several decades, we have worked in firms that were focused in large measure on helping managers and key professional associates identify their weaknesses and then fix them.

We’ve developed assessments that identify strengths or weaknesses with equal effectiveness. In hindsight, traditional leadership training hasn’t been geared toward preparing leaders to perform like the top 10 percent of leaders in the organization, but much more to have them avoid behaving like the bottom 10 percent.

There is one thing that no longer surprises us when we share our data with others. As?we get people to identify the best leaders they have known of or have worked with, we ask them if these great leaders had any weaknesses. The answer is always the same, “Yes— they were not perfect.” Our next question is, “If they had weaknesses, what made them?so exceptional?” The answer is always that it was their strengths. It was what they did extremely well that made the difference.

What began to be clear to us then and even clearer to us now is that if people spend the bulk of their time focusing on fixing weaknesses, their potential strengths will never become profound strengths.

Many people believe that the level of their overall effectiveness will be set by their least effective capability. This is true in a few cases when individuals have something we call a fatal flaw. A fatal flaw is a weakness that is so profound that it pre-occupies the attention of others. Only 30% or less of leaders have a fatal flaw, but when they do our prescription is that the fatal flaw needs to be fixed. In this case the focus on fixing weaknesses pays off. But, what happens with those leaders who have no fatal flaw?

Our experience is that they continue to focus on fixing their weaknesses.

An excellent case example of the impact of strengths comes when you compare MP3 Players. If you listen to the music that comes from any generic MP3 player versus an Apple iPod with the same set of ear phones you can’t tell any difference, the sound is essentially the same. Scan the internet and you will find MP3 players with 8GB MP3 Video Player 5MP Digital Video Camera for $40. A comparable iPod costs $199.

Why are people willing to pay four times as much for an iPod?

The iPod has a few profound strengths. The design is beautiful and user friendly, iTunes provides excellent content, the iPod is easy to use. The profound strengths give the iPod four times the value.

What differentiates great leaders from others? Great leaders do a few things very well, they have a few profound strengths which make them stand out from others.

The building strengths approach is a shift in focus from trying to not be below average on any skill to being not just good, but outstanding on a relatively few behaviors, that makes the difference that causes great leaders to be viewed as exceptional.

Does investing in leadership development pay dividends? According to our discoveries, it is one of the best investments your organization can make.

About the authors: Zenger Folkman utilizes evidence-driven, strengths-based methods to improve organizations and the people within them. "Jack" Zenger and Joe Folkman are the cofounders of Zenger Folkman and best-selling co-authors of The Inspiring Leader and The Extraordinary Leader. Their newest book is "How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success By Magnifying Your Strengths."

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